WASHINGTON – Karen Pence says it’s OK to not be OK during the coronavirus pandemic.
While Vice President Mike Pence runs the White House coronavirus task force, his wife is leading a parallel effort to help people deal with anxiety and other unsettling emotions brought on by the pandemic.
Two months into the crisis, millions of Americans are struggling to cope with the fallout, whether it's losing loved ones, losing a job or staying at home more than they ever have.
“This is something we're all going through together, and it's not like anything we've ever gone through before,” Karen Pence told The Associated Press in a recent interview.
She is lead ambassador for the PREVENTS task force, an acronym for the President’s Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End the National Tragedy of Suicide. It was created in 2019 to focus on veterans' suicides but recently launched a social media campaign called “More Than Ever Before” to help reach Americans before they get to “the end of their rope,” she said.
“We want them to know there's help out there, and there are things that we can do to prevent some of the effects that this is having on our mental health as a nation,” Mrs. Pence said. She joined the PREVENTS effort early this year, before the extent of the coronavirus threat in the U.S. became clear.
A majority of Americans say they have felt at least one negative emotional reaction in the last seven days, according to a new poll conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago for the Data Foundation.
At least a third of Americans reported feeling nervous, depressed, lonely or hopeless at least one day in the past week. But taken together, 61% of Americans say they have felt at least one of those emotions at one point throughout the week.
Nine percent also reported having a physical reaction, such as sweating, nausea or hyperventilating, when thinking about their experience with the pandemic on one or more days.
The new poll, conducted last week, is the second wave of the COVID-19 Household Impact Survey.
Thirty-eight percent of Americans say they felt lonely at least one of the last seven days. Sixteen percent said they felt that way on three or more days. And 38% said they felt hopeless about the future at least once, with 14% saying they felt that way on three or more days.
Those patterns are similar for feelings of anxiety and depression.
Mrs. Pence says there are four basic things people can do to help them cope with the situation, beginning with a daily “check in” with themselves to gauge how they're feeling and then reach out to a friend or other individual if they need someone to hear them out.
They should also figure out what puts them at ease, whether it's reading, cooking or another activity, and schedule time for it. Mrs. Pence, a watercolor artist, said she's been working on a painting of a friend's house and is designing her family's Christmas card.
People should also talk about their struggles and successes and include children in those conversations. And if they're concerned about themselves or someone else, they should feel comfortable calling the national suicide prevention lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.
“It's OK to not be OK," said Mrs. Pence. She posts tips and information about available resources on her Twitter page.
Among those grappling with the new dynamics is Jody Garrison, who works from her Milwaukee home, turning old books into journals and selling them online.
It's the rare trip to the grocery store — or to the auto mechanic shop later this week to pick up her car after a repair — that brings on the anxiety.
“You worry about, ‘Am I going to catch something from touching something?’ so I truly don't go out in public much at all,” she said by telephone.
Being retired helps, as Garrison had long settled into a routine. The 68-year-old plays with her grandchildren online and meets friends there, and is exercising and reading more, too.
“I think what’s kept my sanity is that I've tried really hard to stay focused on things that kept me happy in the past to sustain the thought of being alone,” she said. “I'm trying to stay focused on the positive, and when you do that, it doesn't seem quite so bad.”
Anxious to see the U.S. economy humming again, President Donald Trump has pushed back against those who warn that coronavirus cases will spike after state lockdowns are lifted. He says more people will die from suicide and substance abuse the longer schools, businesses and workplaces remain closed and people stay at home.
Experts say rates of suicide and substance abuse were rising before the pandemic, but it's too soon to know how much they may have increased during the outbreak.
Suicide prevention and mental health advocates said they welcome the PREVENTS effort but would like to see more spending on a more coordinated effort to reduce deaths caused by despair.
“You don't have to be a mental health expert to know we're in deep trouble,” said former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., co-chair of a new public-private effort to respond to mental health and suicide prevention needs both during and after the coronavirus.
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., with 48,000 deaths reported in 2018, said Jerry Reed, who serves with Kennedy on the executive committee of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, which is separate from the virus-related initiative.
Reed, a longtime suicide prevention advocate, said he'd like to see the same amount of effort that went into combating the coronavirus put into responding to mental health needs.
“I like the fact that we all came together to flatten the physical curve of the virus,” Reed said. “I would suggest we all come together to flatten the mental health curve.”
Associated Press writers Tammy Webber in Chicago and Hannah Fingerhut in Washington contributed to this report.
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This story has been corrected to show that Kennedy represented Rhode Island, not Massachusetts.