Elissa Epel, professor of psychiatry at UCSF (FROM FILE)
Elissa Epel, professor of psychiatry at UCSF (FROM FILE)

Local Jewish agencies provide psychological help during shelter-in-place

Isolation, uncertainty, fear — therapists, social workers and doctors are expecting coronavirus anxiety to increase over the next three weeks, as 7 to 8 million people in most Bay Area counties have been ordered to stay at home.

But the mental health community has also been encouraged by the measures people are taking to reach out.

“A lot of what we’re hearing is people want to figure out ways to stay connected, even with public health demands to be isolated,” said Rabbi Eric Weiss of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center in San Francisco.

With this week’s shelter-in-place announcement asking residents to stay home except for essential errands (like food shopping or getting medicine), Rita Clancy is concerned about seniors.

Rita Clancy
Rita Clancy

“It’s going to be really, really hard,” said Clancy, the director of adult services at Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay. “People are going to be scared and anxious.”

The agency provides home care, counseling, legal help and mental health services to seniors, many of whom are housebound. They are some of the people at highest risk physically, but they can also suffer mentally from anxiety caused by the uncertainty around symptoms and contagion.

“Some are very worried, and a lot more anxious than their baseline” level of anxiety, Clancy said.

She foresees even more anxiety over the coming weeks as seniors become more and more isolated from caseworkers and other people in their support system. Instead of face-to-face visits, the agency’s social workers will communicate by phone. Clancy said that’s not ideal, but it’s the only way they can keep on top of clients’ physical and mental health without compromising their own safety.

“We’re not going to be sitting idle, that’s for sure,” she said. “We’re going to be doing what we can.”

Meanwhile, S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services has set up resources for people feeling anxious or overwhelmed during the crisis. Beyond making sure vulnerable Jewish seniors and disabled people are being looked after, the agency is offering emergency counseling, consultation and advice by telephone or video conference, as well as online workshops with tips for parents to support children struggling with anxiety over the pandemic. This JFCS serves San Francisco, the Peninsula, and Marin and Sonoma counties.

Jason Brand
Jason Brand

Across the bay, Berkeley-based psychotherapist Jason Brand said, “In the mental health community, we’re kind of scrambling to figure out how we’re going to continue to do our work.”

Brand, who works with couples and young adults, said for many of clients the reality of the situation hadn’t really sunk in. He was seeing clients in his office the day before the shelter-in-place order was announced.

“I think we will see a shift as we all start to be cooped up inside,” he said.

He said that an enforced quarantine in a household could bring many stressors, as families feel the pressure — especially if parents are having trouble getting along or have children with mental health issues.

Feeling in touch with our common humanity right now is important

But Brand encourages couples and families to work together as team members and allies, especially in the face of their own kids’ anxiety. He recommends keeping calm in front of children and limiting their exposure to the media.

“We don’t need to sugarcoat this, but they don’t need the full onslaught,” he said.

Brand also said that families with children out of school should find order in routine.

“Kids want structure,” he said. “As much as they complain when their alarms go off, they know internally that they need that structure.”

Elissa Epel, a professor of psychiatry at UCSF who studies the causes and effects of stress, told J. in an email that routine and structure can help people deal with uncertainty.

“Routine and self-care behaviors are especially important during this time,” she said. “Now that people are working at home, new rules need to be set. This will be more of a challenge for large families in smaller homes.”

But according to Epel, there’s a plus side to anxiety: It gets people to take the recommended safety measures seriously because they aren’t downplaying the risk.

“Anxiety is good,” she said. “Clearly the safety behaviors are what we need to be doing. Anxiety drives social distancing and safety behaviors.”

And concern about isolation is actually encouraging people to make an extra effort to reach out to others. Clancy said volunteers have been calling her agency offering to help.

“It’s better to reach out,” Clancy said. “It’s better to care and do a little gesture for somebody.”

She’s mustering volunteers to make regular phone calls to isolated seniors to help preserve the human-to-human connection that is very important to those who are home alone.

Rabbi Eric Weiss
Rabbi Eric Weiss

Weiss offered the idea that facing the unknown can encourage creativity and innovation; he’s been hearing about people creating art, journaling and making music as they’ve been at home.

Epel also suggested finding strength in Jewish ritual and prayer.

“Prayer can be very powerful right now if we let ourselves focus and connect with our spirituality and religion,” she said. “What happens in your body if you find a special place to say the Shema, and say it several times a day?”

And although isolation and fear create uncertainty, there are many ways of fighting anxiety, whether it’s with a song or a prayer, or just a phone call to a friend.

“Feeling in touch with our common humanity right now is important,” Epel said. “All over the world we are experiencing anxiety. This terrible virus brings us to our shared experience of being human, and we can feel connected and compassion for each other.”

These Jewish community agencies are offering varying levels of assistance and/or information about coping with anxiety and talking to children about the coronavirus outbreak:

S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services. (415) 339-2443 or jfcs.org. The website includes links to JFCS blogs titled “Supporting Our Children in Difficult Times” and “Help Kids Feel Safe and Manage Stress.” Services offered include counseling sessions and workshops via phone or video conference.

Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay. jfcs-eastbay.org. “We are rapidly shifting toward interacting with clients by phone or video chat wherever possible,” Avi Rose, JFCS executive director, wrote in an online message.

Jewish Family Services of Silicon Valley. Sign up for an e-newsletter that outlines how JFS is “supporting our community during the crisis” and asks people to make contact via email at this time.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.