HEALTH

Houghtaling puts spotlight on mental health during crisis

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East Greenwich Drug Program director Bob Houghtaling is seeking to quell the anxiety brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, even though he knows how difficult that task may be.

In an interview last week for the Beacon Communications podcast “Radio Beacon,” Houghtaling discussed Mental Health Awareness Month and how this may be one of the most important of its kind ever. He said everyone is feeling some sort of level of stress or anxiety, so self-care is crucial to moving through the crisis.

“This year with the challenges of the coronavirus, where a tremendous amount of stress has been caused by social distancing, some individuals are having difficulty maintaining their systems of support and families have been challenged, schools have been challenged,” Houghtaling said. “I think mental health has come to the forefront now more than ever.”

Houghtaling said that he generally works with a 70-30 split between younger and older people, but those numbers have changed drastically because of the pandemic. He said as support systems are cut off through social distancing, adults are in greater need of assistance.

“So some of your older population, some of your older adults ended up having their systems truncated,” Houghtaling said. “Individuals that were in treatment had some of that interpersonal, person-to-person treatment attacked. Then on top of that, I saw some of those individuals that were probably in their 30s that had addictive disorders and now their family constellations were changed. They’re at home, there’s some pressure at home.

“Now today, the young people with anxiety, depression, being out of some of the supports they would get in school and their families – so it’s kind of like a three-tiered thing.”

For those who can lean on family interaction, Houghtaling encouraged them to do so.

Referencing younger students in particular, he said they should take a walk once in a while to take their minds off schoolwork. He added that reading a book or getting outside in other ways can be effective in alleviating stress.

Still, some students may find it difficult to focus when they aren’t receiving the support they are accustomed to at school. Houghtaling said they shouldn’t be afraid to “be a little selfish” if they need to establish personal space or boundaries that allow them to breathe a bit easier.

“Just back off a little bit, take a walk, and don’t be afraid to ask for some help,” Houghtaling said. “As far as a parent or an adult now who’s at home trying to help out with a kid, family’s more important. Family interaction’s more important. Choose the hill that you’re going to battle on. Maybe make sure you have some space for yourself … but understand that school, those things have all changed, and don’t put so much pressure on yourself.”

Houghtaling also proposed taking advantage of different resources throughout the state, such as Thrive Behavioral Health or BH Links. Tri-County Community Action Agency would be a similar such outlet for those in the Johnston and Cranston areas.

He has still found time to spend with clients – going for socially distanced walks in East Greenwich – labeling himself as a “masked man” and noting that he’s “getting in incredible shape” strolling around town.

Despite people physically remaining apart, there are still personal connections being fostered all around.

“I know in our town there’s a significant number of people out taking a walk,” Houghtaling said. “I also work with an organization in East Greenwich that’s also in Providence, the Interfaith Counseling Center. I also think in other places, some of your religious leaders and some of your churches have been wonderful in terms of people keeping connected. So there are some services available, and there are people who have gone above and beyond – some of your soup kitchens have gone above and beyond to keep people as connected as possible.”

The pandemic is likely to have a lasting effect on mental health, too, Houghtaling said. From stress and dysfunction within families potentially getting exacerbated to the current economic turmoil, mostly everyone is going to have to adjust to a new normal for some time.

However, there are some glimmers of hope. He mentioned there are some people who are seemingly thriving in the work-from-home era, and the crisis could shine a spotlight on mental health that could prove to be invaluable.

“There are some people that are very adroit being on the computer,” Houghtaling said. “Some of the people are going to be feeling the ramifications of this for some time, and that’s why I think it’s really essential that we put a little bit more emphasis on mental health. I think we also, again, differentiate between mental illness and mental health and recognize that we all need to look and check on our mental health.”

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