Helen Vlahakis of DeKalb said she got her second dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine on April 23, about a year after she completed treatment for breast cancer.
Vlahakis said her doctor told her to stay home as much as possible while she was still undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatment in March 2020, about when the COVID-19 pandemic became more widespread. She said that limited her outings to just going to the doctor’s office, grocery store and pharmacy.
“But other than that, I didn’t do anything because I was going through chemo and radiation and was more susceptible to the virus – and I’m diabetic, too,” Vlahakis said. “So it was a double whammy.”
Some residents have expressed feeling heightened anxiety about health and safety as Illinois starts to open up more and more amid the COVID-19 pandemic. However, local mental health experts gave suggestions on how people can better function despite that re-entry anxiety.
Vlahakis said she has coped fairly well throughout the past year or so. She said she has been watching television and otherwise keeping herself busy at home. Even before the pandemic hit, she said, she was wearing a face mask during flu season to protect herself.
“But I’m still a little wary” to venture outside too much, Vlahakis said. “I don’t know how long the immunity from the vaccine’s going to last. I just don’t know enough about it, other than what they say on the news, (or whether) it’s going to be like the flu shot, where we have to get it annually or every six months.”
J.J. Wett, clinical director for the DeKalb County Youth Services Bureau and licensed therapist, said he has been seeing a mixture of feelings from his clients about society slowly opening back up.
“I think you have the relief part of it, where you actually get to see somebody in person,” Wett said. “And then you have the opposite part of it with the people with social anxiety in general and having to go back to their jobs, schools, all of that. And you see, of course, that flare-up on the anxiety piece of it because they already had social anxiety. For probably around nine months to a year, they really didn’t have to go into those social situations, and now they do.”
Emily Kunash, a therapist at Next Level Counseling and Wellness in Woodstock, said the a common theme she has heard from people is a disconnect within families or other groups, with people being at different levels of comfort when it comes to COVID-19-related precautions.
“So sometimes, for example, you’ve got a husband that’s feeling a lot more comfortable with getting together with friends and family and maybe the wife is just a little bit more anxious about it,” Kunash said. “And so it can create some tension between family members or friends, being at different comfortability levels.”
Kunash said being upfront about those types of concerns and compromising to a point where everyone can feel comfortable can help. For example, she said, if someone within a group wanted to go to a restaurant and dine indoors but some may feel hesitant about dining indoors, a compromise might be either choosing an establishment with outdoor seating or a restaurant that is strict about health precautions indoors.
“The biggest thing is really having conversations that open up communication about what’s going on, so that the two – or the families – can discuss how to accommodate the discrepancy,” Kunash said.
Wett said some of the most common concerns he’s heard from clients include being judged by others for how they’re handling the pandemic or being concerned about a loved one dying from the virus. He said he recommends people acknowledge their feelings and let them just be, rather than trying to replace their negative feelings with more positive feelings.
“What I often tell my clients to do is almost have an internal dialogue with that thought,” Wett said.
Kunash said validating those feelings goes a long way for those feeling hesitant and people comforting those who are feeling hesitant. She said having clear expectations going into any gathering or event also helps.
“It can be really scary for somebody to walk into a situation and not be prepared for what is happening,” Kunash said. “Be really up front about what it is you’d like to see or what you plan to do so that it doesn’t feel uncomfortable when you get there.”
Wett said anyone who might feel like they wouldn’t be able to respond to a gathering situation amid the pandemic in a non-harmful way might want to step back, do some breathing exercises and ground themselves. If someone believes they need more help from a licensed therapist, he said, some might be able and willing to work with patients who are upfront about their financial situation, if that’s the only thing standing in the way of getting the help they need.
Another option that might be easier to fit into busy schedules is tele-therapy services like BetterHelp, through which Wett also practices as a licensed therapist. He said therapy has become more accessible than ever for people, especially since BetterHelp’s cost per session is about one-third of what an in-person session would be with insurance, and BetterHelp also comes with unlimited texting capabilities.
However, Wett pointed out the BetterHelp waitlist to match clients with therapists is about a month out.
“It wasn’t that way in like a year and a half ago,” Wett said. “But since the pandemic, it just exploded. It jumped.”
Sarah Lloyd, one of the owners of Action Consulting and Therapy in Geneva, said staying informed can also boost feelings of control, but also know when to turn off the news. She also urged people to go slow when it comes to re-entering a more open society and to pace themselves with multiple offers to do things they may not have been able to do in the last year.
“So it might be tempting to do them all in one day, but that’s just going to lead to exhaustion,” Lloyd said. “It’s exhausting to navigate these new experiences and to do them all on the same day.”
Even when everything fully reopens and if events such as Greek Fest or Corn Fest in DeKalb are still happening this summer, Vlahakis said she still plans on wearing her mask wherever she goes to help protect the most vulnerable.
“When you go to a festival or a fair, there are going to be kids,” Vlahakis said, referring to children still not being eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. “And I think I just would want to protect the kid who might be out at Corn Fest and have pre-existing conditions or something.”
Overall, Wett said breaking the negative stigma of mental health and seeking treatment is one of the biggest things people can do going forward to help themselves or their loved ones.
“I want people to know they are not alone in their struggles,” Wett said. “There are plenty of resources out there.”