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There Are Signs That Anxiety Is Rising In Maine, As Cases Of COVID-19 Increase

Robert F. Bukaty
Associated Press
Medical personnel discuss patients that had been admitted for testing for the coronavirus at the entrance Central Maine Medical Center on Friday, March 13, 2020, in Lewiston, Maine.

Those who work in the field of mental health say that just as cases of COVID-19 are on the rise in Maine, so is the level of anxiety. Calls to both the state crisis line and the non-crisis "warm" line are up. And with the emergence of physical distancing, and the closure of many community-based mental health offices, providers, clients, and peers are finding other ways to connect.

Even before the coronavirus hit Maine, 70-year-old Don Banton of Waterville says he felt anxious all the time. Now that the virus is here and spreading, he says it can be hard not to let his feelings take over.

"I feel myself feeling a bit paranoid - you know, that so many people are getting sick, that I could get sick, my wife could get sick, my grandchildren could get sick."

Banton says one way he manages his anxiety is to keep busy. But that's getting harder to do. The soup kitchen at which he volunteers is now closed, as is his church. And the group meetings he regularly attends for support are now online instead of in-person.

"It's a little weird," he says. "I would much rather it be in person. We miss hugging each other."

Banton had been going to the Peer Recovery Center in Waterville, where peer specialist Ian Roig says groups can still meet online, but "our work is based on connection. And we're presented with the challenges of not doing that face to face, which is what we were trained to do."

Peer Center Coordinator Buffy Johnson says she's worried that the need for physical distance could cause some people to regress into habits they've worked hard to overcome."

"Some of it has been challenging for people, when they were in a place of isolating, and then being able to reach out and really come out of isolation," Johnson says, "and now they're having to go back into what feels like isolation again."

"We are really trying to be creative about how do we support people? How do we support Mainers in this situation now?" says Jenna Mehnert, the CEO of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Maine, or NAMI, which runs the Waterville Peer Recovery Center, as well as other support groups and trainings throughout the state.

Much of that work has shifted from in-person to online, and NAMI has also launched new programs, such as Facebook Live talks each weekday afternoon that cover a range of mental health topics. Mehnert says it's the uncertainty about the coronavirus that has many people on edge.

"Even if you've never had an anxiety disorder in your life before, this level of uncertainty is going to be anxiety-producing for a number of people," she says.

Changes to daily life are the source of stress that Lonnie Leeman sees in his practice. He runs the Christopher Aaron Counseling Center in Gray. Leeman says many parents are struggling - from finding child care for kids who are home from school, to figuring out how to access school meals that they rely on.

"I think what's happening is people are coming sort of out of a state of shock, if you will, and now trying to comprehend how they're going to move forward from here," Leeman says. "At first it was just a two-week time away from school, and now it's been extended. And it's, 'What do we do? And how do we do it, going forward?'"

Leeman says he's concerned how Maine's already pinched mental health system will be able to meet the growing demand for support services. "As this goes on, I do worry about isolation, and how it's going to impact anxiety and depression."

The issue is also on the mind of state Center for Disease Control Director Dr. Nirav Shah. Shah has repeatedly urged Mainers during his daily press briefings to keep physical distance from others, but to maintain social contact as best they can.

On Monday, he acknowledged the simmering sense of fear and anxiety around the coronavirus."I ask each of you to recognize that you are not alone. Not in your community. Not in your state. Not in your country. We are all in that same boat, where there are more questions than answers right now."

Shah urges those who need support to call - whether that be a friend, a family member, or the state's 211 phone line, which operates 24/7. Over the past week, 211 has received more than 2,300 calls, emails, and texts related to the coronavirus.