Beating holiday blues in COVID era
From left to right: Supervisor Kathryn Barger, 5th District, LA County Board of Supervisors; Dr. Jonathan Sherin, Director, LA County Department of Mental Health; Dr. Jorge Partida del Toro, Chief of Psychology, LA County Department of Mental Health; Dr. Eloisa Gonzalez, Director for Cardiovascular and School Health, LA County Department of Public Health; Shirley Ray, LA County Department of Mental Health client
L.A. County offers mental health aid, urges trying it
By Mark Hedin. Ethnic Media Services
We all want to be at our best with family and friends over the holiday season. But almost two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, with so many loved ones lost and multiple other challenges before us, our mental health is at risk.
But it’s OK to ask for help, and there are a host of resources available in L.A. County for doing so.
At a briefing hosted by Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger and Ethnic Media Services, county officials urged the public to not be shy about getting help – for their own sake, and that of their communities – and detailed some places to find it.
“Depression is the number one issue facing people,” Barger said. “Without support, mental health problems can quickly snowball and have a deep impact on our lives.”
“But there is light at the end of the tunnel. Our county is committed to providing residents with the tools to get well and thrive,” she said, acknowledging how the pandemic has also taken a toll through social isolation, job losses, heightened childcare needs and more.
“Mental health stress doesn’t discriminate,” Barger said. “Please know that you are not alone. The holiday blues can impact someone of any age or background.”
“It is OK to ask for help. It is not a weakness, it is a sign of strength that you are putting your health first to be able to be there for your family.”
Dr. Jonathan Sherin, of the county Department of Mental Health, called out the value of small kindnesses we can extend to each other and the importance of maintaining bonds with friends, family, and community.
“It seems cheesy,” he admitted, but related how little things like letting other drivers merge in front of us, with a wave and an acknowledgment, or even opening doors
Beyond that, he said, the county has some helpful interventions to offer, too.
There’s a hotline, (800) 854-7771, staffed around the clock to provide everything from a calm, concerned voice to help find a way through a crisis, to someone who can send a team out to address a situation in person.
“We have found that this type of virtual process is as effective as in-person treatment for many people.”
Shirley Ray, of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, described from her own experience some of the ways the county can help people overcome the holiday blues.
She led “a very exciting life,” working and married with children, until she suffered heart attacks and wound up homeless.
Reluctant to impose on her now-grown children, she lived in her car for “a number of years.” But, she recalled, “Around the holidays it was difficult for me.”
Eventually, nurses from Mental Health America Long Beach noticed her and got her into a housing lottery that she won. They also helped her to overcome fear of being stigmatized by visiting a mental health clinic.
There, counseling and art therapy helped. Her artwork was featured in the county’s “We Rise” program and she was moved to try to help others.
“It’s not good to be idle,” she said. She leads the “What’s the Word, Word Up” peer-to-peer support group as a volunteer at the San Pedro Mental Health Clinic that helped her.
“I’m a happy camper now,” she said.
“When we’re able to care for ourselves, we have more energy, more resources to care for others,” said Dr. Jorge Partida del Toro, chief of psychology at the county Department of Mental Health.
But, he said, “for generations, people of color have not been able to use their voice. We’re used to being silent, to stuffing our feelings. That is the reason we have such issues with chronic conditions like diabetes, hypertension, but also higher incidence of mental illness, depression, anxiety, because we just are sitting on so much suffering.”
“We learn that what makes us strong is to be silent. We need to teach our children that the opposite is true, to stay connected and share.”
An added stressor of the COVID-19 pandemic, he noted, is prolonged grief.
The pandemic “hasn’t allowed our communities to grieve properly,” he said. “The ritual of being able to let go and say goodbye is interrupted… Because we’re afraid to be so open and honest, there’s a tendency to hold onto this prolonged grief.”
This manifests, del Toro said, in “increases in suicide attempts, domestic violence, self-harming behaviors, particularly in men, more acting out through addiction, sexual compulsion, gambling, an indirect way of addressing and expressing the unresolved grief we are sometimes experiencing.”
Dr. Eloisa Gonzalez of the Department of Public Health concluded the briefing with an update on the availability of vaccinations and boosters, for free and regardless of immigration status for anyone who lives or works in the county. Information on accessing these is available at vaccinatelacounty.com.
The county still records more than a thousand new cases every day, although there is no indication of a surge following Halloween, an outcome Gonzalez credited to greater awareness, careful, thoughtful planning by residents and higher vaccine rates.
Vaccination rates are lowest among Black residents, at 54% overall, 43% among those ages 18-29, and 46% among those 12-17, while seniors are at 75%. Among Latinx residents, those 18-29, at 58%, are the least likely to be vaccinated.
“If we don’t do better there could be even greater disproportionality in health outcomes by race and ethnicity if we experience another surge.”