Jon Hart

John Hart is a critical care nurse at Saint Francis Hospital.

At the time of writing, Oklahoma has nearly 5,400 known cases of COVID-19. The death toll sits at 288: a significant number, to be sure, but nonetheless fewer deaths than many denser parts of the nation.

But if Oklahoma has thus far evaded the brunt of the virus, the state — like the rest of the country — has clearly been impacted in profound ways. Namely, the mental landscape has been shaken up, and it’s anyone’s guess when things might settle again.

As Zack Stoycoff from the Tulsa-based Healthy Minds Policy Initiative puts it, “We know COVID impacts our routines and our daily life, and that’s going to have an impact on our mental health. The reality is we all are feeling it in some way or another.”

If anxiety regarding the virus isn’t already heightening stress, there’s a good chance the projected economic downturn will (and already has). Healthy Minds released a 12-page report that projects in its April 23 revision a statewide increase in suicidal ideation and drug/alcohol addiction as a result of the pandemic and subsequent economic stress, as well as an estimate that 30% of currently quarantined children could experience post-traumatic stress disorder, among many other such projections.

The full report can be found at healthymindspolicy.org/covidresearchpage, and Stoycoff along with James Zahniser, Ph.D., (also of Healthy Minds) expand on the entire subject in the May 6 episode of “Tulsa Talks: A TulsaPeople Podcast.”

If you’re tuned in to the rapidly shifting discourse around the pandemic, you’ve likely heard this phrase over and over again: It’s the new normal.

In concurrence, “This is going to be a presence among us,” says Jon Hart, a critical care nurse at Saint Francis Hospital. “We know the flu is seasonal. By that I mean it appears for a time and recurs year to year. Similarly, our best understanding from virologists and immunologists is that COVID-19 also will be seasonal and recur from year to year. We of course will not know that for certain until we get further down the road.”

But until it’s treated with the modest concern with which we traditionally treat the flu, it’s still the novel coronavirus, and it’s affecting whole swaths of people.

Health care workers, of course, feel it most acutely. As Misti Wooten, director of nursing at Rainbow Health Care Community in Bristow, says: “COVID-19 will have lasting mental health impacts on the health care workers who are on the front lines of this pandemic.”

Hart concurs. “What you have is a persistent, higher level of stress,” he says. “It takes the baseline up a few notches, and it runs through everything you do — from going to the grocery store to mowing your yard.”

Neither of the quoted nurses is willing to back down, however, eager to recall that such situations are in their job descriptions as health care workers. Support from their workplaces eases the emotional burden, as well; for example, the robust, online emotional support network at Saint Francis, not to mention the peer-to-peer support.

“Here at Saint Francis … we’ve had conversations and said, ‘Look, we’ve got to help the younger guys navigate this,’ and we have,” says Hart, who has 28 years of experience in the health care industry.

Children and young adults, on the other hand, are in a trickier spot. Namely, they’re stuck at home, unable to physically engage with their peer groups and devoid of important social stimulation — activity of utmost importance to younger kids, in particular.

“I do think they will struggle,” says Chief Program Officer Whitney Downie of Family and Children’s Services. “All those milestones that they would normally be experiencing … they’re not in the company of other children to kind of practice that.”

Downie believes in the resiliency of children, however, and notes that they take their cues from the adults around them. Prudent, mature conversations between parents and their children regarding the virus (paired with that natural resiliency) means a better overall outcome for kids, many of whom may very well come out of the whole thing unscathed. In everyday application: using a calm tone and avoiding overexposure to news reports, accounts of the disease and any other such topics that might frighten young children.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, senior citizens’ mental health also is at risk, not to mention their physical health; they comprise one of the most at-risk groups for coronavirus complications.

“People bring them groceries; they have things delivered; but they don’t get out, so for them, a doctor’s visit is their only social outlet,” says Vincent Bryan, D.O., from Warren Clinic Internal Medicine. Telehealth can only go so far, and the scores of senior citizens sheltering in place — whether at their homes or in nursing facilities — are at risk of a far more impactful isolation than perhaps any other group.

Of course, you don’t have to be a member of one of the mentioned parties to be feeling a negative impact. However, “There are fortunately a lot of great resources available for Tulsans,” Stoycoff says.

At healthymindspolicy.org/covid-19, these resources — websites, hotlines and so on — are divided into categories like local support, support for those with mental illnesses, support for parents in communicating about the virus with their children and more.

In the May 6 episode of “Tulsa Talks,” Stoycoff and Zahniser give more advice in protecting one’s mental health, hitting in particular on one of the key sources of strife amid the pandemic: isolation. Among certain breathing exercises and exercise, they stress the importance of reaching out to others and keeping some sort of rapport through digital means where physical ones are unsafe. There is personal benefit to this, but it’s just as important for the person on the other end — particularly those at risk of more severe isolation. Phone calls and the like might not hold a candle to in-person conversation, but they’re quite a bit better than nothing. 

Editorial Intern

Ethan Veenker is from Tulsa, Oklahoma. He will graduate from the University of Tulsa in May 2020 with two degrees in English and creative writing. When not writing or reading, he likes to drum. This annoys his neighbors.

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