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‘We have to move on’: Local experts encourage mental health care into the new year

 (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)

For his part, Dean Cameron is ready to move on from 2020 – even though prominent events and issues that defined this past year are sure to remain.

COVID-19, and the living restrictions imposed to stem the spread, will remain a prominent factor even as vaccines are released and administered. In the U.S., feelings stoked by the presidential election will persist into 2021. There’s also violence and racism. Natural disasters.

After a year of that and more – including celebrity deaths, stunted or canceled sports and murder hornets – studies show people have reported increased feelings of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

“People get hypnotized by the negativity,” said Cameron, owner of magazine publishing company Top Drawer Media. “You can hardly turn on the TV.”

With publications based separately on aerospace news and arts/entertainment, Cameron said 2020 for Top Drawer Media was a “keep our head above water kind of year.” Heading into 2021, the Spokane Valley resident said he is hoping to stay above what he can’t control.

“So many people these days focus their lives, opinions and emotions around things they have no control over,” he said. “It causes division and hate and polarization.”

More than 19.6 million cases of COVID-19 have been reported in the United States as of Thursday, according to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention. More than 344,000 Americans have died of the coronavirus.

Positive experiences have emerged throughout, nevertheless, such as reconnecting with family members during social isolation, discovering new activities, and communities rallying to support each other, said Jamie Derrick, associate clinical professor of psychology at the University of Idaho.

“I don’t think we’re giving humanity enough credit for our capacity for helping each other and getting each other through adversity,” she said.

Going into 2021 with the continued uncertainty of the pandemic, mental health experts are encouraging people to continue to take wholesome care of themselves as safely as possible.

Rising above, moving forward

Many recommended strategies to starting a new year off right – such as exercise, eating well and connecting with people – face either coronavirus-related or environmental challenges, especially in the immediate term.

Particularly with exercise, people can be driven by vicarious experience, or feeling encouragement and confidence from observing others, said Robin Pickering, associate professor of health sciences at Whitworth University. And while staying at home helps stem the spread of COVID-19, Pickering said, the side effects include more normalized sedentary behaviors and less opportunity for those vicarious experiences.

Such behaviors have included increased substance abuse, as indicated by a study from the CDC. Issued over a week in late June, the study found that approximately 13.3% of 5,470 respondents reported they had started or increased substance use to cope with pandemic-related stress or emotions.

Among 18- to 24-year-olds, the result was 24.7%.

“Instead of just looking at the year as a bust and something to cross off, instead look at it as an opportunity for growth and change,” Pickering said. “We can only count on change always happening, so if we can figure out how to change and grow from that, I think it can be a positive thing.”

Jeff Ramirez, associate professor of nursing at Gonzaga University, said the challenge is rising above negative emotions born out of 2020 – and not getting mired in new ones that may develop with the new year.

“Regardless of what we have lived through this past year, some of those things are going to continue on,” he said, “and we can either stay stuck in the anger, resentment and regret, or we can feel it for a while and we have to move on and look at things getting a bit better.”

Both Ramirez and Derrick said the emotions people may feel – fear, sadness, anger – are natural responses to adversity.

Citing the idea of self-fulfilling prophecy, Derrick said someone could build a positive expectation into reality just as they could a negative one.

“We can have a more hopeful sort of worldview and possibly bring that into life through the same processes,” she said. “It’s creating the possibility and the opening for growth and creativity and learning through hardships.”

Making for a happy new year

For 2021, Cameron said he is looking to focus on being supportive, generous and productive to make his community a better place.

“You can’t swallow the elephant in one bite,” he said, latter adding, “Those small things make a huge difference in other people’s lives. Collectively, the small things that we do create the positive quality of life that we have here in Spokane and the Pacific Northwest.”

Mental health experts recommend a similar mindset for New Year’s resolutions.

If you’re going to try one this year, Ramirez suggested smaller goals broken up throughout the year – quarterly, perhaps – rather than one broad endpoint. The idea of exercising more often, for example, could start with getting out more regularly for walks and going from there.

Another example is a goal of living a healthy lifestyle. That’s an impossible goal since it’s always a work in progress, Derrick said; choosing healthy foods, meanwhile, is more within a value-based approach.

“We have to let go of perfectionism and create an attitude of wholesome growth without the exaggerated expectations,” she said. “It’s hard enough to manage what we’re experiencing as a culture without throwing on top of it self-perfections.”

Pickering said the best resolutions are specific, measurable and “behaviorally driven.”

She understands that some people have strong thoughts about the effectiveness of New Year’s resolutions. They can be great and inspiring, Pickering said – as long as they are reasonable, of course.

“If there was ever a year we needed New Year’s resolutions,” Pickering said, “maybe it’s this one.”