By Kale Sastre
When I first heard about Coronavirus, it didn’t seem much different than other health scares I’ve lived through. I thought this would be a good chance to get some cheap plane tickets, though I was disappointed that St. Patrick’s Day events were cancelled. But once schools and sports shut down, I knew it was serious. Since then, people I know personally have gotten sick and even died. The in-person supports I depended on have been pulled out from under me. While this has been hard on everyone, it is particularly difficult on people with mental health conditions, including myself and my neighbors.
I live in an apartment complex for low income people with at least one diagnosed mental health disorder. The organization that runs this complex is a mental health community center . Organizations like this community center and housing programs that cater to low income, disabled individuals are absolutely crucial to us surviving – not only during a pandemic, but all the time.
For most people, the uncertainty we’re dealing with now is scary. For people with anxiety, it is terrifying, impacting what we can handle on a daily basis. Most people would agree that these times are depressing, but for those of us with depression it can feel overwhelming and unbearable. Our suicidal thoughts are skyrocketing while the world seems hopeless and our lives have lost many of their bright spots. While everyone is struggling to maintain a sense of normalcy, many people with mental health disorders are struggling to survive.
People with cognitive and intellectual disorders may not understand what is happening and why, especially without consistent, direct instructions and communication. People with social disorders are more isolated than ever, which can make it difficult to continue hard-won progress in maintaining healthy social relationships. People who struggle with instability in their mental health, including people with bipolar or borderline, report having a hard time gripping onto something to keep their lives safe and regular. Consistency is key for managing many of these disabilities, and we are in a time with very little consistency.
For many of my neighbors, the hardest thing about Coronavirus has been the closing of the community center. Since all of us in my complex live alone and many do not have jobs, the center has been a major source of socialization and productivity for residents, as well as for other community members. Going to the community center was a big part of many people’s routines. Routine can be calming and motivating, and helps keep people on a stable and healthy path. When our routines are disrupted, it is harder to have a positive attitude and to do the things necessary for our wellbeing. For some people with mental health disabilities, lack of routine can lead to a total breakdown. Coronavirus has left us without much of a routine.
The community center offers a virtual experience to members now that the building is closed, and the staff have been reaching out to members. Supporting organizations like the center makes a tremendous difference for people struggling with their mental health, especially right now.
Without supportive housing options such as is offered through this program, many people with mental health disabilities experience severe consequences, including homelessness. According to the Center for American Progress:
“People with mental health disabilities are vastly overrepresented in the population of people who experience homelessness. Of the more than 550,000 people in America who experienced homelessness on a given night in 2017, 1 in 5 had a mental illness. The proportion of people experiencing chronic homelessness with mental health disabilities was even higher—nearly 1 in 3.”
The chronic stressors around insecure housing have a strong impact on mental and physical health. Permanent supportive housing, a combination of safe, stable housing and supportive services for people with mental health and other disabilities, is widely recognized as an evidence-supported model for providing transformative support that leads to improved health and lasting housing stability. In a pandemic where people with disabilities are at higher risk of infection, this is an especially important accommodation.
For me, part of how I keep my mental health in a good place is by traveling and setting goals. Right now, most travel is indefinitely suspended, and many of the goals I have set for myself have had to be put on hold. I made a new list of goals specifically for the duration of the pandemic, but much of what I really want to do is postponed if not completely cancelled. Suicide risk goes up when distractions are gone and goals seem unachievable. Depressive states can seem never ending.
It is important to remember people with mental health struggles during these times, without using mental health struggles as an excuse to let virus transmission run rampant. More than ever, we need people to reach out to us. My friends who have played games with me online and who have offered to video chat with me help me to feel less purposeless and alone. I’ve been able to help my neighbors by walking them through how to connect online and by helping organize mini events on the property.
Check on us. Don’t just ask if we’re okay; ask how you can help. Help us individually but also support mental health organizations and mental healthcare access. Keep up with your legislators and show your support for disability rights, as well as initiatives that provide funding for long-term supports and services for people with disabilities, including permanent supportive housing. Funding for mental health organizations is especially crucial right now, as is affordable access to virtual mental health appointments. These resources can help people with mental health disabilities build and keep their stability and comfort, and even save their lives.
Links to articles and sites referenced, in order of appearance:
Center for American Progress; Lack of Housing and Mental Health Disabilities Exacerbate One Another, by Heidi Schultheis. November 20, 2018.
American Public Health Association (APHA); Housing and Homelessness as a Public Health Issue. November 7, 2018.
About the author
Kale Sastre is a disabled writer/activist/adventurer living (for the moment) in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She wants to bring awareness to the issues people with physical and mental health disabilities and chronic illnesses face through her own experiences as well as those of others.
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