Raising awareness on behavioral health during wildfire smoke and next phase of COVID-19

State health experts are raising awareness on behavioral health with the wildfires and the COVID-19 pandemic this year.

The pandemic has already changed the world as we know it, and one of our best defenses against the coronavirus continues to be social distancing, which can be challenging when we need connection.

It’s also been several days since the wildfire smoke covered the state, and health recommendations are keeping people indoors with only members of their household allowed.

Ava Hendrix, a West Seattle single mother, has three teenagers at home who are remote learning due to the pandemic. On top of the daily stressors, she also suffers from asthma. 

“The air was just so thick, and no matter how much I’m using the air purifiers and the fans, and keeping all the windows and doors shut, I’m still having a lot of smoke getting in somehow which affects my asthma. I just went to the ER the other night because I was really struggling for air. It definitely has been anxiety-inducing,” said Hendrix.

Clinical psychologist Kira Mauseth is the Co-Lead for the Behavioral Health Strike Team for the Washington State Department of Health (DOH).

One of her areas of expertise is disaster psychology. Her team at DOH is taking the lead on the COVID-19 response and recovery from a behavioral health perspective.

“Right now, Washington State is heading into the disillusionment phase of disaster response and recovery,” said Mauseth. “The disillusionment phase is really sort of characterized by coming to terms with what we’ve all been through in the last six months and the recognition and acceptance that it’s not going to go back to the way that it was.”

Symptoms during this phase include depression and heightened anxiety. Suicidal ideation and intent are at the highest level nine months after a disaster, according to Mauseth.

It doesn’t help that this phase will happen during daylight savings time, changing weather, the November election, and an expected second wave of COVID-19, according to Mauseth.

“It falls in the time of year when other things are happening that are challenging as well,” said Mauseth. “For families displaced and dealing with wildfire direct effect in their lives in addition to COVID, please don’t downplay what that effect has on your behavioral health.”

The DOH Behavioral Health Strike Team is training and giving presentations on a comprehensive behavioral health plan to health professionals in Washington State. Information includes where we are heading, and how to prepare and recover in the healthiest way possible.

“It will get better because that’s what happens and we know this from 9-11, we know this from Hurricane Katrina, we know this from the earthquake in Haiti,” said Mauseth. “Human beings are by and large generally resilient.”

Mauseth said to practice the elements of resilience which are adaptability and flexibility, purpose, connection, and hope.

“Try to stay positive and hopeful and know that we will get through this. This has been a challenging year, but we know that it can only get better from here,” said Hendrix.

In June, the state launched the “Washington Listens” support line, where call-takers help people cope and strengthen resiliency during the COVID-19 pandemic. Call Washington Listens at 1-833-681-0211.

Mental health crisis lines are available for all people in Washington.

For suicide prevention, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Washington Recovery Help Line 1-866-789-1511. This is an anonymous and confidential helpline that provides crisis intervention and referral services for individuals in Washington State.

Click here for a list of County crisis line phone numbers.