It’s been a little more than a year since COVID-19 upended just about everyone’s life, and that includes our once bustling Laguna Woods community.
Clubhouses closed, pools were inaccessible, gatherings were forbidden, church services curtailed, friends forced to shun friends, grandkids left unhugged. Businesses closed, services were cut and, though vaccines are available, faces remain masked.
Most shocking, more than half a million people in the United States have died.
Is it any wonder that, according to reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 40 percent of adults in America are struggling with anxiety, depression, substance abuse or other mental health problems as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic? These mental health issues have mostly been attributed to the forced isolation of the coronavirus quarantine.
Enter the MemorialCare Medical Foundation, which has partnered with SilverCloud Health to provide an online mental health platform that offers digital behavioral health care for Southern California adults. It’s free to use and doesn’t require a doctor’s order. All that’s needed is a sign-in at www.memorialcare.org/silvercloud.
Dr. Mark Schafer, CEO of the nonprofit MemorialCare Medical Foundation, is a driving force behind the partnership with SilverCloud.
“When I practiced internal medicine, I came into contact with a lot of elderly patients with anxiety, loneliness and depression. I have not seen patients through COVID but talked to many other physicians who noted the toll it took on people,” he said.
Schafer’s duties include overseeing 2,000 physicians in the MemorialCare and affiliated networks as chief medical officer. He does not currently see patients but works in an administrative capacity, he said.
“Lockdowns and the isolation from family, grandchildren, have caused a lot of depression and anxiety,” Schafer said. “Four out of 10 people struggle with depression and substance abuse. Numbers tripled during COVID.” He added that this not only applies to Laguna Woods and Southern California but nationwide.
Citing a shortage of mental health professionals, Schafer said MemorialCare had looked at SilverCloud even before the pandemic.
“People are busy, they don’t have time to see a physician or mental health care worker. There is also still a stigma” about mental health problems, he said.
As an online platform, SilverCloud offers privacy and anonymity and is free to use not only by MemorialCare patients but the Southern California community. No primary care physician referral is needed. And it can be used as a preventive measure with its methodology of self-analysis, Schafer said.
Once at the site, participants can access a description of the service and its many facets and possibilities. After logging on, they’ll be asked a series of questions about what ails them. For example: Do you have little interest or pleasure in doing things? Do you feel down, depressed or hopeless? Do you have trouble falling asleep, or are you sleeping too much? Do you eat too much or too little? The list goes on.
The program is based on cognitive behavioral therapy, which in part helps patients become aware of and change negative thinking that contributes to mental health problems. It also has a module that specifically addresses mental health challenges stemming from the pandemic.
Depending on a participant’s answers, tools are offered to pinpoint a problem, to track it via, say, a journal and a mood monitor. There’s help to get motivated, to stay in the present, set goals, schedule and keep track of and find new activities.
For this reporter, the program provides a way to remain self-aware, to recognize symptoms when a “downer” is about to come on. Then, it helps to journal or just to redirect thoughts into positive and self-affirming channels. There are also quizzes and templates for lists and guides for establishing support networks. It’s also uplifting to read in one of the site’s modules the accounts of challenges other participants face and how they have solved them or are working on solving them.
The platform was established through extensive research of mental health conditions in real-world settings. Research papers can be read at www.silvercloudhealth.com/our-research.
Word is getting out about SilverCloud: In February, the platform gained 500 signups, bringing the monthly total to 1,600 users, Schafer said. He said the service will remain in place post-pandemic.
“It’s not just for COVID-19 but for stress and anxiety and building resiliency,” Schafer said. “It’s a good sign that people are willing to seek help, and there are also modules for diabetes and other medical problems. We expect that to grow over time, with the population aging. There is a connection between mental and physical well-being.”
So how have Laguna Woods residents been coping in the pandemic? Many have been taking advantage of the beauty of Aliso Creek Park and its surroundings. For this reporter, the abundance of nature is therapeutic. Nearly every critter hereabouts has become a buddy. Dogs are a blessing. Even if we are not quite up to remembering their names, Sarah, Molly or Simon, Rover and Rider — not a problem.
Isolation and boredom during the pandemic tend to be problems: no restaurants, no movies, long days of repetitiveness..
Village resident Lucy Parker can attest to those feelings, but she found a way to help herself.
“Early in the pandemic, I noticed a new reluctance to get out of bed in the morning – not feeling sick, but not feeling well, and not at all ready to get up,” Parker said in an email. “I’ve circumvented this malaise with my tablet and online subscriptions to the LA Times and OC Register. As a communications professional, I’ve always subscribed to local newspapers, throwing away bales of them unread.
“But now, with more time and a process I’ve come to treasure, I flick through electronic pages collecting nuggets to store or share, and soon feel ready to face my day. Even when things get busy again, I’d be willing to rise earlier to preserve this comforting routine.”
Resident Joan Milliman also found a way to help herself when her emotions started to overwhelm her.
“I would get angry or afraid over very little during this quarantine, when I ran across the following quotation: ‘You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.’ (Jon Kabat-Zinn). I was reminded that breathing was a way to surf the waves of stress that would arise from sudden emotions of fear, anger, or hopelessness.”
She offered this advice on controlled breathing: “Breathe in through your nose to the count of five, and breathe out slowly through your mouth to the count of eight. Do this three or four times and notice how your muscles feel relief and your thinking clears.”
Resident Michelle Cahill, a writer and self-described introvert, sums up the year:
“When the pandemic’s ‘stay in’ order was declared, I initially snickered a bit at the perfect-for-me introvert memes, all basically: ‘We’ve been waiting for this day all our lives.’ But I also saw the seriousness of the situation. Thinking it would last only a few weeks, this would be a cinch, me writing and painting, food and other needs available by delivery.
“But in the months that followed, I questioned my hermit lifestyle. What emotional damage was it doing? As anxiety built, I ignored it until a health issue prompted me to call 911. Very scared, as I’d seen other of my Facebook friends do at times, I subsequently wrote a post asking for prayers and good vibes during a difficult time. The love and support I received was uplifting.”
The Village has been fortunate to have Social Services, with social workers Susan McInerney, Jeanne Chestnut, Laura Boucher and Lourdes Oseguera. The department, which provides short-term counseling, crisis intervention, support groups, educational programs and more, partners with MemorialCare Saddleback Medical Center, the Council on Aging-Southern California and Alzheimer’s Orange County. Each social worker manages a workload of 100 to 150 clients at a time, McInerney said.
“Our team is dedicated to help Laguna Woods residents maintain their way of life, to age in place,” she said. “To that end, the team is trained to deal with crises, both personal and national.”
McInerney lauded Village residents for quickly adapting to COVID-19 safety mandates and following suggestions for maintaining resilience and adapting to stress.
A social worker since 2000, McInerney started working at Social Services as an intern. “I was trained to work with seniors — the Village is where I always wanted to be.”
With restrictions easing, Social Services resumed home visits on March 8, while phone services also are available. “We are all about community,” McInerney said.
The Council on Aging is represented here by social worker Chelsea Marshello. Her concerns are the most lonely and isolated residents, helping to provide meals and groceries and keeping residents connected to vital services such as health care.
“On a positive side, I have noticed examples of neighbors banding together, checking in with each other and learning new ways to stay together — to adapt to changes and reaching out for help, if needed,” Marshello said. “I love working with this population. There is a lot of strength and knowledge. I learn a lot.”
There’s been a lot of suffering and loss, too, Marshello said, and time is essential to reflect on the challenges, but also on people who have brought healing and hope.