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WINCHESTER — A campaign to address holiday depression, which has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, includes distributing free yard signs with inspirational messages.
The messages are designed to promote compassion, community solidarity and individual perseverance. They include, “Don’t Give Up”, “You Are Not Alone” and “Life is Tough, But You’re Tougher.” The slogans were written by state mental health professionals, according to Rebekah Schennum, a prevention specialist with Northwestern Community Services, an area drug and mental health treatment provider that is distributing the signs regionally.
“Our main goal is to spread positivity during this time, but we also don’t want to diminish a lot of the realities that individuals face during the holidays, especially given the times right now with COVID and virtual learning,” Schennum said. “There is the complex reality that so many people face with so many contributing factors.”
Schennum said the campaign’s goals are educating people about the complexities of mental illness, reducing the stigma that surrounds it and encouraging healthy routines and positivity. However, Schennum said there is a danger of “toxic positivity”, an unrealistic societal pressure to be eternally optimistic. She said the campaign seeks a balance. “To understand that it is OK not to feel OK, but to keep growing and evolving,” is how a news release from Northwestern’s prevention department described it.
Slogans can act as coping mechanisms. Think of the Marine Corps’ “Improvise, Adapt, Overcome” or “Keep Calm and Carry On,” a British government propaganda slogan that wasn’t widely used during World War II but has become popular in recent years. Or “One Day at a Time.” The excerpt from theologian Rinehold Neibuhr’s “The Serenity Prayer” — which asks God for the wisdom to discern what can and cannot be changed — has been adopted as a slogan by Alcoholics Anonymous.
But slogans cannot address the nationwide lack of drug and mental health treatment. Just 11% of people with a drug use disorder received treatment in 2018, according to a study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration. The study also found that 45% of people with serious mental illness said their need for treatment went unmet.
The pandemic has increased the lack of treatment. A Gallup poll released on Dec. 7 found 76% of Americans rated their mental health as positive, down 9 percentage points from last year. The rating was the lowest in 20 years.
The poll was in line with a national survey conducted in late June by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of the 5,470 respondents, 41% reported mental health problems including anxiety, depression and pandemic-related stress and trauma. People between 18 and 25, Black and Hispanic people, essential workers and unpaid caregivers were the most likely to report contemplating suicide. The findings are similar to what local drug and mental health treatment advocates are seeing.
“So many people are struggling with mental health disorders, with substance use disorders and financial problems due to losing their jobs,” said Lauren Cummings, executive director of the Northern Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coalition, which is also distributing the signs locally. “There are a lot of barriers right now to people finding the help they need.”
The virus and the holiday season, with its focus on celebrating and family gatherings, can exacerbate depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder, which occurs in winter, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. It involves a reduction of the chemical serotonin in the brain that regulates moods. People experiencing it can also have an increase in the chemical melatonin, which makes it harder to sleep.
Many people with mental health problems self-medicate with drugs and the coronavirus has compounded that with increased “deaths of despair” due to increased isolation and unemployment. Through Dec. 21, there had been a record-high 53 fatal and 196 non-fatal overdoses in the Lord Fairfax Health District, according to state police Special Agent Joshua T. Price, head of the Northwestern Virginia Drug and Gang Task Force. At the same time last year, there had been 27 fatal and 141 non-fatal overdoses. The district encompasses Winchester as well as Clarke, Frederick, Page, Shenandoah and Warren counties.
Frederick County Sheriff Lenny Millholland said responding to overdoses and mental health crises are an everyday occurrence for police. He said the sign slogans are similar to the themes of the Crisis Intervention Training his deputies have received. The training helps deputies de-escalate tension and build rapport with people in a mental health crisis.
“All of them can relate to what those signs say,” said Millholland, whose office is one of the groups displaying the signs. “There are so many things you can tell somebody that might not be on these signs and things that the average deputy has used 100 times before in the past when dealing with somebody. But these are pretty neat slogans that you can always remember.”