Island County provides support for pandemic, upcoming holidays

— Created November 25, 2020 by Kacie Jo Voeller

By Kacie Jo Voeller

            The holiday season of 2020 has coincided with a recent surge in COVID-19 cases, leading to calls for smaller or virtual holiday celebrations and staying close to home. Washington Governor Jay Inslee has called for mitigation measures to help curb the spread of the virus. Throughout the pandemic, Island County Human Services has offered help to the community ranging from rent assistance to connection with counseling services.

            Jackie Henderson, director of Island County Human Services, said while holiday seasons tend to be difficult for those who are more isolated, she predicts this year more people may be impacted and the effects of the pandemic may be exacerbated by the holiday season. Henderson said the exact effects and toll on mental health may not be known until later, or after the holidays.

“Holidays are always tough for people that are alone, and I think that will just be compounded this year,” she said. “I think the more we can get the word out about alternatives and some of the things on how to take care of yourself, the better.”

Betsy Griffith, behavioral health lead for Island County Human Services, said although this year may present difficulties during the holiday season, following guidelines will help to keep the community safe.

“While many people are saddened by the loss of holiday traditions, everyone’s commitment to maintaining fewer contacts will help to curb the number of people infected,” she said. “There is a great image out there comparing what we feel is our risk contacts (our family, coworkers, etc.) with our actual risk contacts (the people our contacts have contact with). Our bubbles are actually larger than we think and may include people who aren’t taking the precautions we are.”

The team at Island County Human Services suggests combating isolation through the use of technology and coming up with safe ways to stay in contact with people, whether it is hosting a group get-together via Zoom or sending a card or letter in the mail to a friend or relative.

            “Connect with others safely as much as possible,” they said. “Utilize opportunities for connection through the resources that you have. Many people are trying to maintain group meetings or activities that used to be in person over Zoom or the phone.”

            The team at Island County Human Services also recommends practicing gratitude as a way to boost happiness.

“Keep a journal or notebook by your bedside and as soon as you wake up write down three people/things you are grateful for,” they said. “When you go to bed, review what you wrote in the morning and write three things you are grateful for that happened that day. These things do not have to be monumental – they can be simple. Studies have shown doing gratitude lists like this has a positive impact on mood.”

Kathryn Clancy, behavioral health supervisor for Island County Human Services, said in order to provide support to the community, ICHS launched a help line in March and an online referral help line in June. She said as of the start of November, the organization has fielded more than 1,100 service referrals addressing needs from helping islanders cope with stress and anxiety to navigating unemployment.

“In the month of October, the majority of referrals, 24 percent, indicated a need for support with job loss or reduction in hours, followed closely by requests for support with anxiety, stress, or depression, with 21 percent of individuals requesting this service,” she said. “Considered together, the data suggest that Island County residents are currently struggling most with employment security and behavioral health needs.”

Griffith said the resources and referral help provided by the organization have become even more vital during the pandemic.

“There are so many layers of importance to the services provided,” she said. “Supporting the needs of those most marginalized is a major priority. Ensuring that people are able to maintain housing, utilities, food, etc. is always a priority, but especially during the pandemic. Island County Human Services has always been a go-to contact to help individuals to connect with resources to support those basic needs.

“Further, the Island County Human Services behavioral health programs help to support citizens in connecting to counseling and substance use services,” she said. “This is especially important now as people are experiencing increased stress, anxiety and depression. These stressors are manifesting in increased substance use/abuse, increased experiences of suicidal ideation and increased domestic violence. Our hope is that by making services as accessible as possible, we can minimize the expected impact of the stressors of 2020 and increase the resiliency of our community.”  

Clancy said a steady rise in need for the organization’s assistance has been seen recently.

            “Over the last six months, we have seen an increase in reports of depression, anxiety, stress, thoughts of suicide, and drug/alcohol overdoses,” she said. “There has also been a steady increase in calls to 911 and visits to hospital emergency rooms for mental health and substance use needs and concerns. We believe these increases are due to the ongoing isolation and severe economic challenges for residents of our county due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The impact of school closures, business closures and the Stay Home and Stay Healthy guidelines from the state have added to the stress for residents. All of this creates an increased need for behavioral health services now and the foreseeable future.”       

            Clancy said although the pandemic has brought many challenges, Island County residents have also come together to support one another and community resources.

            “In the behavioral health field, one of the areas we also notice after a disaster is the resilience of people,” she said. “In Island County, we have witnessed this resilience in residents along with a desire of the community to help one another.”

For more information, visit Island County Human Services’ Help Line can be accessed by calling: 360-678-2346.

If you or anyone you know is having thoughts of suicide or if you are concerned about yourself or a loved one having these thoughts, please call:

 Local Crisis Line: 1-800-584-3578

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255