COVINGTON, Ga. — For Mental Health Awareness Month, The Covington News recently spoke with Tamara Varnado, a behavioral health clinician at View Point Health in Covington, about mental health resources and small steps everyone can take to improve their mental wellbeing.
The News: The pandemic has had significant effects on people’s mental health, the extent to which is still to be seen. What advice can you give to people who are still dealing with the loneliness and stress experienced during this time period?
Varnado: “Trying to connect with others in whatever way is accessible and safe, whether that be Zoom social hours or meeting outside of a park. I know people are comfortable with sitting indoors. There are places that offer support groups for people who have stress from the pandemic and we even have a COVID Support Warm Line [(888)-945-1414]. It’s a phone line people can call during the day … that’s staffed by peer support specialists, so people can call that people to stay connected to something that’s bigger than the temporary experience in the pandemic.”
CN: Speaking of mindfulness practices, is there a particular one everyone could incorporate into their daily routine?
Varnado: “It’s hard to pick just one. Especially if you’re just starting out with mindfulness, practicing mindful breathing is a great place to start and it’s good to know that when we exhale for longer than we inhale that slows down our heart rate and lowers our blood pressure, whereas if we do the opposite — if we inhale for longer than we exhale — that will slightly speed up our heart rate. So, to destress we want to exhale for longer than we inhale. I usually practice breathing in through the nose for four seconds and then breathing out for six. I think it’s really helpful for a lot of people to stay focused on the breath because that’s the idea of the mindful breathing; We’re putting our stress aside, we’re putting our worries aside, putting the pandemic aside for a minute, we’re coming out of our thoughts and being present in the moment with our breaths. So, as many senses as we have to tie ourselves to that, the better it works.
“I find for a lot of people it’s helpful to find a color. A lot of people pick a color like blue or teal that represents peace and a lot of people choose red … to represent stress or tension. And for those four counts in, you imagine yourself breathing in a peaceful blue mist and then breathing out the color that is stress or tension to you. That way, we have touch working to tie us to the moment, we have sound working to tie us to the moment because we’re hearing our breathing, we have vision working to tie us to the moment because we’re visualizing these colors. So, we’re tying as many senses as we can ground ourselves in the moment. That’s something that I’ll do throughout the day every day.”
CN: How can people support family members and friends struggling with mental health issues?
Varnado: “It’s great to encourage people to seek treatment. We have lots of resources in the area.
“View Point, of course, is a great one in Newton County, but if they’re insured they can go through the insurance company. Seeking treatment is really important and for a long time we’ve had a stigma around it, but I feel like that is starting to pass, especially as we so much increase in depression and anxiety with the pandemic. For a lot of people this is part of the human experience, even if it is a temporary one. Professional treatment can really help for some people, so I think encouraging that is great.
“I think just really trying to practice acceptance of that person as they are. We still love you the way you are. You don’t have to be different. You don’t have to feel 100% for us to still like you and want to be around you and want to spend time with you. I think that’s really important because I think a lot of people feel like if they have a mental health problem they become a burden to their loved ones, so I think getting that message across that you don’t have to be 100% to still be Someone we love … We love the people in our lives even when they’re not 100%, so I think that’s good trying to encourage treatment and trying to meet them where they’re at. OK, maybe you don’t have a lot of energy or want to get out of the house a lot, but maybe let’s go walk in the park for 20 minutes or let’s go get a coffee for 30 minutes. If they’re willing and if it feels safe to that person, trying to get out and spend time with them and being able to lend an ear to listen.”
CN: You’ve already touched on a lot of mental health resources. Are there any others you would suggest locally or nationally that people can look to?
Varnado: “In Georgia, we have the Georgia Access and Crisis line. It’s a number you can call if you’re having a mental health crisis or if you need access to services or both. That’s a great number to call and it’s 1-800-715-4225.
“The National Alliance for Mental Illnesses is a great source for information and resources [nami.org]. They have local support groups and family support groups. There’s some in Conyers and they have virtual support groups. They also supply a lot of information and education.
“And, then I think it’s always good when discussing mental health to include the suicide prevention lifeline, as well, which is (800)-273-8255.”
CN: Is there anything else you want to share?
Varnado: “Yeah, the one thing I’m passionate about that I think is important to know is that mental health does not live over in a box on the shelf on its own; it’s intertwined with every level of our society. It’s intertwined with poverty and homelessness, it’s intertwined with our economy, it’s intertwined with our culture, with our creative cultures, you know, art, music, science.
“Having good resources, and importantly, access to mental health services is not a luxury or it’s not something that’s kind of good to have. It’s essential to having a thriving society because so many other things depend on having citizens that have good mental health and have resources to use if they’re struggling. That’s what’s really important to me is just recognizing how causative it is for all kinds of aspects for our world and our communities.”