As the COVID-19 pandemic upends day-to-day life, sustaining and improving mental health has rarely been more important. And with May being Mental Health Awareness month in the state, it is an equally important time to collectively support one another, maintain a sense of balance and even have fun, according to a Rhode Island substance abuse coordinator. 

“Mental health is something we should all strive to enhance and protect at all times,” said Bob Houghtaling, East Greenwich’s substance abuse coordinator, on Monday in a phone interview.  

“All too often, when we think of mental health, we think of mental illness,” Houghtaling added. “And even though we should do everything we can to support individuals who have a mental illness, we all need to look at our mental health. We all need to protect and nurture our mental health.” 

And now that the COVID-19 pandemic has turned “everything upside down”–with students being out of school, adults being out of work, and everyone stuck in relative isolation–Houghtaling said that protecting one’s mental health was especially important.   

“It more or less turns everything upside down in a relatively short period of time,” he said. “Kids are out of school, parents are asked to be home more, people are locked down with each other. There’s a tremendous amount of stress in the home.”

On top of that, this uncertain time could also add further stress on people with diagnosed conditions, and those who are in support groups, Houghtaling continued, adding that anyone experiencing distress should not hesitate to reach out for help. 

“A lot of your treatment modalities, your school modalities and your family dynamics have changed over night, and that puts a significant amount of stress on many people,” he said. 

In order to help prevent the additional effects on mental health caused by the pandemic, Houghtaling recommended a series of protective measures, such as taking breaks, getting involved with nature and maintaining connections, all as needed to avoid being overwhelmed.  

He also pointed to Abraham Maslow’s famous description of the hierarchy of needs, which illustrates that food, shelter and health–including mental health–are paramount. 

“With all of this said, it is important to note that May is Mental Health Awareness Month,” Houghtaling said in an email. “Now, more than ever, this issue/topic has gained global attention. We are all being impacted by sudden and tumultuous change. In addition, those with diagnosed conditions have been asked to address their needs in non-traditional ways. It is a challenge.”

“While I strongly encourage you to seek help if your mental health conditions are overwhelming,” Houghtaling continued, “I am also encouraging a break, long walks, prioritizing and some fun, if possible. Yes, mental health requires maintenance and counseling at times, but it also requires prevention as well. We all need to do what is necessary to protect our mental health. So, keep in mind your Maslow.”

And, Houghtaling continued on Monday, anyone who is feeling a great deal of stress should know that they are not alone. 

“When you recapitulate a little bit, slow down a little bit, understand that it’s okay to take a break,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to ask for some help. Understand that there’s a lot of people who are feeling this way, so you’re not abnormal.”

“On top of that, if you are overwhelmed, and you’re presented with an inordinate amount of stress, reach out for help,” he added. 

Some statewide mental health resources include BH Link, which can be reached at 414-LINK, and Kids Link, at (855) 543-5465, a service for children who require assistance with mental health. 

Houghtaling also pointed to additional Rhode Island resources, such as Thrive Behavioral Health (www.thrivebhri.org) and the Interfaith Counseling Center (www.interfaithri.org). Furthermore, he said that he has been working directly with the Kent County Prevention Coalition to provide more resources to Rhode Islanders. 

He added that maintaining connections with loved ones and support groups, especially during the pandemic, was “essential.” 

“I also think that connections are essential,” he said. “Connections, family-wise, are essential, but if you can’t find them, reaching out and trying to find ways of connecting people to support groups, connecting people to another voice on the phone–I think those are incredible.”

“Sometimes you just need that friendly voice and a little bit of guidance along the way,” he added. 

And regarding East Greenwich specifically, Houghtaling said the town has always taken mental health “incredibly seriously.” Throughout the pandemic, Houghtaling and town manager Andrew Nota, among other community members, have been posting livestreams on the East Greenwich Academy Foundation Facebook page as an effort to “keep people connected.” 

“When you keep communications like that open and let people feel that they are connected, those things are huge,” he said. 

Additionally, high school students who are part of the ASAPP group have been reaching out to their peers to help them maintain their mental health. 

ASAPP–which stands for assess, support, action, proceed and prevent–is a peer education model that Houghtaling advises.  

Houghtaling also commended Gov. Gina Raimondo and Rhode Island communities for taking mental health issues “very seriously,” though he added that there needs to be an emphasis on adapting to the “new normal” of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

“There’s going to be some significant challenges when we go back to school in September, preparing the teachers and preparing the kids,” he said. “Mental health is going to be a huge issue for a while.” 

“When we begin to look at September, families have been challenged, and maybe there’s situations going on at home, and kids have been locked in with that from March to September,” he continued. “I think that mental health is going to be an imperative situation as we go forward.” 

He added that the state of businesses and the economy have also impacted mental health, which has led to a higher number of adults than usual seeking Houghtaling’s assistance. He went on to say that anyone seeking assistance can contact him at rhoughtaling@eastgreenwichri.com

“I’m more than willing to meet them in person, take walks, speak with people on the phone,” he said. “We’ve referred a number of people into treatment already.”

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