Healthy Community Recovery: Add Your Voice

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Skagitonians have discovered a wide range of fun and interesting ways to capture their day-to-day COVID living: creating video montages of each day using the 1 Second Everyday app, photobooks of puzzles completed, “QuaranTime capsules,” COVID plays, song parodies, and more. Cataloging these trying times in creative ways helps us process our new reality and expand our connectivity. Also, these activities will give us tangible ways to look back on these strange days when we emerge from the crisis.

The Population Health Trust (often known as the Trust) has another way for individuals and families to capture their experiences with COVID-19—a way that will help us understand the behavioral, economic, social and emotional impacts resulting from the outbreak. We are rolling out the Community Recovery-Oriented Needs Assessment (CORONA survey), which is open for responses between now and the end of September. By participating in the CORONA survey, you will add your voice to this countywide discussion.

Survey participants can opt into a prize drawing! Take the survey today!

It is the Trust’s role to pull together information from across the community, determine key health issues facing Skagitonians, and devise a strategic plan for regaining health and wellness. We need to understand the variety of ways that COVID-19 has impacted you and your family in order to prioritize the critical needs arising as a result of COVID-19. 

You can support our community’s recovery by completing the CORONA survey at wacoronasurvey.com. To take the survey by phone, call 855-530-5787; interpreters are available to assist. We rely on your experiences and needs to drive our work toward healthy community recovery. Thank you for taking the time to add your knowledge and perspective to this community conversation.


Recovering from Disasters: Common Phases and Experiences

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We’ve been hearing a lot about phases recently as Washington State rolls out its approach for reopening businesses and physical distancing measures. With Skagit County now officially in Phase 2 of the Governor’s Safe Start plan, it is exciting—and relieving—to begin seeing things get back to somewhat “normal.” At this time, it is important to be thinking about some other phases: specifically, the phases of recovery that we may be experiencing in regards to our mental and emotional health.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) provides a thought-provoking graph titled, “Phases of Disaster,” which tracks a typical community’s response to a disaster. A large-scale disaster can take many forms, such as natural disasters (hurricanes or tornados) or human caused (acts of violence or terrorism). And though it may not seem like it when we are hunkered down in our living rooms, we are currently in the midst of a very different type of crisis.

“Phases of Disaster” Adapted from Zunin & Myers as cited in DeWolfe, D. J., 2000. Training manual for mental health and human service workers in major disasters

According to the graph, it is normal (and even expected) that an individual or community may feel the effects of a disaster for quite some time—a year or more in some cases. There are six phases of recovery written into this model. This is how the phases are defined:

Phase 1: Pre-Disaster
This is the period of time before a disaster takes place and is “characterized by fear and uncertainty.” In the case of COVID-19 and Washington State, this would have been prior to the State’s first confirmed case back in March, when we were reading news about the spread in other countries. 

Phase 2: Impact

This is when the disaster takes place and is “characterized by a range of intense emotional reactions … [and] can range from shock to overt panic.” For many, this phase of the pandemic began when the state reported its first positive case or when schools and businesses began to shut down in late March. We can all recall feeling unnerved during this time as we began to see our daily routines changed suddenly.

Phase 3: Heroic
People come together during disasters. Skagit County witnessed so many amazing acts of heroism, from health care staff and first responders on the front lines, to people volunteering as Meals on Wheels drivers, to  large amounts of donations to non-profits helping those in greatest need. And we continue to hear new stories of compassion. While it comes as no surprise that our County would step up to a challenge, it is also amazing to see how these selfless actions are tracked on this graph.

Phase 4: Honeymoon

The opening of our drive-thru testing site in mid-April is a perfect example of the Honeymoon Phase, when disaster assistance becomes readily available. This time is “characterized by a dramatic shift in emotion,” when “community bonding occurs.” It is also when optimism peaks and people believe everything will return to normal quickly.

Phase 5: Disillusionment

For some, it may feel like we are in this phase now. This is when “optimism turns to discouragement and stress continues to take a toll.” It might also be a time when “negative reactions, such as physical exhaustion or substance use, may begin to surface.” Constant media bombardment, reporting an increase of new cases after a few days of low numbers, and other triggering events in the news can all greatly impact our ability to recover. This phase can last for months, and it is normal to experience periods of emotional highs and lows throughout. If you are feeling disillusioned, please know that this is a very human reaction, and that there is help available.

Phase 6: Reconstruction

Reconstruction is possible when “individuals and communities begin to assume responsibility for rebuilding their lives, and people adjust to a new normal.” Even still, it is typical to grieve over losses during this phase. While our County is well on its way toward Reconstruction, it is important to give ourselves some grace as we continue on our collective road toward recovery.

SAMHSA lists the following suggestions for coping with a disaster:

1. Talk with others who understand and accept how you feel. Reach out to a trusted friend, family member, or faith-based leader to explore what meaning the event may have for you.

2. Body movement helps to get rid of the buildup of extra stress hormones. Exercise once daily or in smaller amounts throughout the day.

3. Take deep breaths. Most people can benefit from taking several deep breaths often throughout the day. Deep breathing can move stress out of your body and help you to calm yourself. It can even help stop a panic attack.

4. Listen to music. Music is a way to help your body relax naturally. Play music timed to the breath or to your heartbeat. Create a relaxing playlist for yourself and listen to it often.

5. Pay attention to your physical self. Make sure to get enough sleep and rest each day. Eat healthy meals and snacks and make sure to drink plenty of water. Avoid caffeine, tobacco, and alcohol – especially in large amounts. Their effects are multiplied under stress and can be harmful, just making things worse.

6. Use known coping skills. How did you handle past traumatic events like a car crash or the death of a loved one? What helped then (such as more time with family, going to a support group meeting)? Try using those coping skills now.

The impact on our collective, and individual, mental and emotional health cannot be understated or ignored at this time. For some people, recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic will be quick and relatively painless. For others, recovery may need to take place on several levels: emotional, social, economic, and even physical. And while we all must deal with the impacts of the pandemic on our own terms, we must also carry the impact as a community, and learn to rebuild, readjust, and move forward with patience and understanding.

If you are feeling stressed or anxious, depressed or lonely, please know that these are all common reactions to a crisis. The Disaster Distress Helpline is dedicated to providing immediate crisis counseling for people who are experiencing emotional distress related to any natural or human-caused disaster. This service is toll-free, multilingual and confidential. Call 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746 to connect with a trained crisis counselor. For more resources click here.

So remember, wherever you may be at on your road to recovery, please know that your feelings are valid—and even backed by science!


Recovery: Paths to Wellness During COVID-19

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In the best of times, recovery from a substance use disorder is a monumental challenge. COVID-19 is adding extra hurdles on the path to recovery. Drug court has been suspended. In-person 12-step meetings have been replaced by Zoom meetings. Also, many treatment centers have closed or are limiting their physical contact. Daily necessities, like internet access from libraries, are no longer available or severely cut back.  Lastly, members of support networks may be in quarantine or isolation.

“Resources were taken away overnight with no time to make a plan to replace them,” said Mike Hudson, Director of the Skagit Valley REACH Center in Mount Vernon. REACH is a support center providing an array of recovery supports and services.

People with substance use disorders benefit from a support network of family, friends, sponsors, counselors, and others who help them on their journey to wellness. In order to continue providing services to those in recovery, the REACH Center has remained open but is now closed on Saturdays to allow for an extra deep cleaning, and the number of people allowed in the building at a time is limited to 10. Staff and peers who use the center must follow social distancing guidelines and wear masks, and they are encouraged to wash their hands and disinfect surfaces frequently.

“We felt the most important thing we could do for our participants is to remain open with our regular menu of support services and some form of face-to-face interaction for as long as we could,” Mike said.

Jon Oickle, Regional Clinical Manager at Catholic Community Services Northwest Recovery Centers, says that his organization has moved all group and individual treatment activities to telehealth-based services, though offices have remained open to serve those individuals without online or phone access.

“The social distancing and stay-at-home orders have become a source of significant stress and social isolation for individuals in recovery,” Jon said. “People in recovery may be particularly susceptible to the potential negative effects of stress and isolation, which may increase the risk of relapse.” That’s why he encourages people in recovery to participate in online and phone-based meetings, to reach out to support networks, and to “avoid long stretches of idle time, as this can also be a trigger to relapse.”

The attendance numbers for treatment groups is comparable to pre-COVID-19 figures, Jon said, adding that no-shows for individual sessions have actually decreased “as clients are eager to engage and talk about their current struggles.”

Alan Muia, Executive Director of New Earth Recovery, which operates four recovery homes in Mount Vernon, says his organization is restricting visitors and limiting nights that residents can spend away from their recovery house in order to reduce the risk of bringing COVID-19 into the houses. New Earth Recovery is encouraging the use of personal protective equipment and has adopted stricter disinfecting protocols, as well as set up a quarantine room should the need arise.

Support from family and friends is absolutely vital to recovery, Alan said, especially during times of social distancing. “People need connections, and we, the broader community, family, and friends, can be a lifeline. While patterns may have had to change, we can help people find meaning and purpose in their lives,” he said, adding that the best thing we can do right now for our loved ones in recovery is to stay in contact with them, hold them accountable, and don’t allow them to isolate themselves.

“Isolation, stress and boredom are the perfect storm for substance use recurrence, so this is a difficult time for many,” Alan said. “I think the biggest challenge for most is the physical distancing, which can lead to relational isolation. A vital component of healthy recovery is engaging in community/relationships.”

New Earth Recovery is offering additional opportunities to participate in house gatherings and activities, and is encouraging safe exercise and other ways that residents can work on their recovery and ward off depression.

“Addiction is a disease of isolation, and the present situation makes it difficult for people in recovery to maintain healthy rhythms of connection with each other,” Alan said. “It will help to keep as many healthy rhythms as possible and to create new ones if the others have become impossible.” He recommends attending online support meetings or counseling sessions, starting an exercise routine, or looking into online classes. While there are challenges with pursuing all these suggestions, he says, “moving forward in some area of life is crucial. … None of us can afford to take a long break from life or recovery at this time.”

Mike from the REACH Center added that “recovery is not an event or a finite destination. It is a life-long process that requires major lifestyle changes that must be acknowledged, monitored and maintained. It must also be understood, encouraged and supported by the individual’s personal network and society at large.”

If you or someone you love is in recovery and is struggling right now, you don’t have to go it alone. There are organizations and people who can support you. You can find a list of available resources here and at the site linked below:

https://www.skagitcounty.net/Departments/HumanServices/mh.htm