Susan Phillips

Susan Phillips

Amidst this COVID-19 pandemic, our world is changing every day. We are having to find new ways to cope with the multitude of struggles brought on by social distancing requirements, all while still dealing with whatever life gave us before this historic health emergency stopped us in our tracks. 

While these changes in our social activity, daily structure and for some, employment and financial situations, can affect our mental health and bring about increased depression, anxiety, and sometimes suicidal thoughts, our main goal should be to care for ourselves and remember that there is help available for these issues. It’s also important to remember that this situation is temporary.

For some, stay at home orders have brought a welcomed break from the rush of today’s society, while others are slowly adjusting to new ways of coping with social restrictions. Many have found healthy ways to reduce their anxiety and prevent toxic stress from overwhelming them. Activities that may help during this pandemic are:  

  • Exercise, even if it is just a short walk
  • Deep breathing, meditation, or prayer
  • Plenty of sleep
  • Following as normal a schedule as possible
  • Starting a new hobby
  • Awareness that the pandemic will be short term 
  • Religious congregational care
  • Using social media and video or phone calls to stay connected with family/friends 
  • Exploring areas for self-improvement
  • Focusing on how you can help others during this time
  • Reaching out to a virtual peer support group

We can’t emphasize connection enough. 

These mental health centers across middle, southeast, and upper Cumberland regions of TN are one of the many services provided by Volunteer. Peer Support Centers and virtual support groups found on, both VBH programs, provide individuals with behavioral health conditions or co-occurring mental illness and addiction with a supportive recovery network.

Even while finding positive ways to cope, our anxiety may increase as the number of reported COVID-19 cases and deaths continues to rise. Fear over our health and those we love, as well as loss of employment and dwindling financial resources can send us into panic-mode. Uncertainty, loss of normal freedoms of movement, and altered ways of coping or finding support among friends can produce feelings of isolation, anxiety, and depression. 

For those who were dealing with behavioral health issues, addiction, chronic pain or illness, loss of a loved one, or isolation before this pandemic, the impact of this virus can become devastating.

Signs of stress can include:

  • Poor sleep or eating patterns
  • Problems concentrating or remembering things
  • Obsessive worry of financial problems
  • Worsening chronic physical health problems
  • Exacerbated mental health problems
  • Feeling helpless
  • Increased use of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs

It is important to know that current fears are normal, natural reactions that we have all felt recently. However, prolonged exposure to these symptoms may lead to a level of anxiety that significantly impairs functioning. Panic attacks, inability to make decisions, or failure to complete daily living activities may occur. 

Prolonged stress can result in feelings of hopelessness and suicidal thoughts. Although there is no one cause of suicide, unemployment is a key risk factor. Suicide rates specifically among men have increased with economic recession and high rates of unemployment. 

According to a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) saw an 891% increase in call volume to the “Disaster Distress Helpline” for March 2020, compared to calls in March of last year.

While SAMHSA and other federal agencies continue to address growing mental health concerns across the nation, local leader Laura Tedesco, Vice President of Crisis Services, says, “VBH Crisis staff are available 24/7 to provide assistance to those experiencing a mental health emergency. You are not alone; don’t wait; we are ready to help now.”

VBH has regional Crisis Walk-In Centers and Crisis Stabilization Units located in Chattanooga and Cookeville that are open and prepared to meet the needs of individuals in crisis, even while taking the necessary health precautions during this pandemic. And through Volunteer’s No Wrong Door approach to programming, their multitude of behavioral health care services are equipped to provide access through telehealth technology, allowing them to reach people without even leaving home. 

Volunteer’s therapists aim to build trust with someone at risk for suicide and normalize their experience by trying to understand their “why” and “how.” By building hope through problem-solving and alternatives to suicide, one becomes engaged in their own treatment and triggers are identified. 

Mindfulness skills, like acknowledging pain and accepting emotions, are encouraged, while learning to set aside distorted thoughts or misconceptions. Finally, the relapse prevention phase strengthens skills learned in treatment and allows the client to exit treatment at the therapist’s discretion. 

Knowing the signs of a mental health crisis can help you determine when to reach out for professional support. In addition to increased signs of stress listed above, warning signs of risk of suicide include:

  • Talking about taking one’s own life
  • Feelings of hopelessness or no reason to live
  • Feeling like a burden to others
  • Feeling trapped
  • Unbearable pain
  • Searching online for methods to commit suicide
  • Withdrawing from activities
  • Isolating from family and friends
  • Visiting or calling people to say goodbye
  • Giving away prized possessions
  • Aggression or irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Unexplained relief or sudden improvement of mood

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or are worried about a family member or friend, please call 800-704-2651 to reach the Crisis Team at VBH.

Other statewide and national suicide resources include:

Tennessee Statewide Crisis Hotline 1-855-CRISIS-1 or 1-855 (274-7471)

National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-TALK or 1-800 (273-8255)

Learn about more ways Volunteer Behavioral Health can help during this crisis by visiting their website at

Susan Phillips is the director at Cumberland Mental Health, a division of Volunteer Behavioral Health.

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