For those with developmental disabilities or mental illness, the pandemic and resulting stay-at-home orders have created isolation from services that normally help them live independently. In the next installment of WMRA’s special series, Mental Health Matters, Mike Tripp reports.
Dorothy Layman lives in her own apartment in Harrisonburg.
DOROTHY LAYMAN: They were coming to help me clean my house and stuff and take me to the doctors until this virus came. I’m the type I can do things on my own, but I need encouragement. With me, they just tell me, and I do it on my own. But they’re there to help me if I need it.
Layman lives on her own, but she also gets help from the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Community Services Board and Pleasant View, Inc., a non-profit agency that supports independent living for people with developmental disabilities.
LAYMAN: They even helped me get a job at Bridgewater College.
Then the pandemic struck, and her world changed in the blink of an eye. Layman had to stay home, her work at the college shut down. Her case workers kept contact by phone, but otherwise she was on her own.
LAYMAN: Right now my house is a mess, and I’m like … 'What do I do?' You know, and I have to force myself to do some house cleaning. I just stayed home and did what they told me to do.
Like many others forced to stay home and physically-distanced, Dorothy says the isolation is taking a toll.
LAYMAN: Because I get anxiety attacks where being cooped up in my apartment, doing things for my neighbor and stuff.
Some of Dorothy’s anxiety comes from watching the news, and how she perceives it. Adding to that anxiety, her fear of catching the virus – her neighbor downstairs wants to visit and share stories, but isn’t as good at physical distancing as Dorothy would like. She says that anxiety came from both being alone and fear of catching the virus from someone else.
STEPHEN BROCK: I don’t think that any of us will return to what we remember as normal. I think we’re going to have to create a new normal.
Stephen Brock also has his own place in Harrisonburg.
BROCK: I’ve had my bouts with bipolar and anxiety disorder. But I’ve been doing fine with that over the last several years.
Stephen controls it with medication. He’s been doing so well that now he’s able to help others with similar circumstances.
BROCK: I work currently at the Harrisonburg-Rockingham [Community] Services Board as a peer specialist.
He understands the challenges his clients face because he’s lived it himself.
BROCK: I’m kinda on their level. I can share my experiences and what I did. And how I perceive things, and kind of guide them along.
Early in the pandemic
, Brock says he knew the world would change dramatically.
BROCK: It was maybe the third week of March, I took a client out, and we knew that the lockdown or the stay at home was coming in place. So, I took this client to an arts and craft store so they could get some drawing books on how to draw animals. Their plan was if they’re going to be cooped up in their apartment, they’re gonna try to get back into their artwork. Stuff to keep them busy.
Being alone with only one’s thoughts can be hard enough under the best of circumstances. Imagine if you are someone with schizophrenia who hears voices. Brock’s experience working with schizophrenics helps him understand.
BROCK: That combination with isolation can really be bad. As I’ve learned, the voices can become so overpowering that you can’t even listen to your music or watch TV. And with some schizophrenia, they’re not thoughts. Those are real voices talking to you. Being away from people and not having contact, that can really, really be bad.
Like many health care providers, Brock had to switch to more remote therapies. He shifted away from in-person and used the phone instead.
BROCK: I know a lot of clients who unfortunately don’t have a car and they can’t drive. And some of them have phobias. They either don’t feel safe or they’re paranoid or they get very antsy around crowds of people. Truly stuck at home.
Melissa Kinman works as a developmental disability support coordinator, also at Harrisonburg-Rockingham CSB. Her responsibilities include assessing individual needs, linking clients with services and then monitoring those services.
MELISSA KINMAN: It has had a huge impact on the individuals that I’ve worked with in a variety of ways.
She says the pandemic-related business closures mean many people who need to work, can’t. And even if they can, it’s harder to keep working.
KINMAN: Because they don’t have the supports of their typical job coaches.
That means that Dorothy Layman, and many others like her, may face additional hurdles before resuming work. As we put together this story, Bridgewater College was still deciding whether and how to reopen in the fall, but Dorothy hopes to return to work there.
KINMAN: A lot of agencies are trying to be creative with the services they can offer to continue to connect with people and to continue to try to meet those needs. Some of the day support agencies have started doing Zoom sessions, so that individuals can continue to see their peers and the staff who they are so used to seeing on a regular basis.
Since Virginia entered Phase 3 of relaxed restrictions on July 1st, Stephen Brock and other service providers have carefully begun to work with clients in person once more … with proper physical distancing of course.