May 29, 2020

Taking Care of Ourselves and Community

by: Norah Langweiler

The physical isolation from COVID-19 is beginning to lift, but without a solid understanding of how the virus will impact our communities long term, we are likely to be living with some level of isolation for a good while. On Wednesday, May 27, Mural Arts’ speaker series, muraLAB, gathered a panel of mental health experts and artists to discuss how we are taking care of ourselves and each other during this time of heightened stress. Watch the full conversation.

The Same but Different 

This moment is fairly unprecedented in that, while the world has been in a pandemic like this before, we’re all experiencing something this big for the first time together. 

Nadia Malik, Mural Arts Porch Light program director and moderator for this panel said, “We’re seeing this communal response to stress. I know I’ve heard conversations from friends and colleagues around being unusually tired and unable to focus. These are all common responses to stress. Our brains are programmed to not allow for long-term planning when dealing with stress. I’ve also heard from many people that they seem to be going through cycles of mood shifts, where one day they’re feeling fine, and then the next are stressed out again. That’s also a completely normal reaction.” Even knowing these reactions are normal, this can still feel overwhelming. 

Throughout this conversation, Nadia kept things personal by asking about both the community response and the personal wellbeing of the panelists, modeling the need to care for yourself so that you are able to care for others.

Clayton Ruley, Director of Community Engagement and Volunteer Services at Prevention Point said, “Folks are dealing with a magnified level of stress and concern about their health in general. Personally, for me, the extra effort around PPE [personal protective equipment] or lack of physical contact, social distancing, definitely takes its toll. I’m very energetic when I’m working and when I get home, I’ve definitely found that due to the mental stress of working in such a challenging time, I’m taking myself to bed a little early. Getting myself up a little earlier, adding a couple of extra steps to the game plan like having a mask on your face, wearing gloves, some of the things we aren’t used to doing.” The extra precautions and social distancing is impacting the way services are being offered and received. “For people who are receiving services, the support systems aren’t there like they normally are,” Clayton added.

Some new services have popped up in response to immediate community health needs. “Quarantine sites are a place for people who don’t have a place to quarantine safely,” said Cesar Mantilla, Assistant Manager of Community-Based Services for the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services (DBHIDS). “Having peer support and checking in daily to make sure their needs are met. Folks are very uncertain about what this means for them. ‘How long do I stay?’ ‘Can I stay longer?’ There is a level of anxiety for folks who don’t know if they are carrying the virus. Some folks are experiencing symptoms, so they need some care. It’s just exacerbating the things that they are already experiencing. For people with mental health or substance use challenges, this moment is even more complicated. They are out of their element. We do what we can to keep in touch with them. One of the things we think will be good about this is that we will stay in touch with folks – to build a relationship, engage with them, and do wellness checks.”

Cesar continued, “Despite the fact that we are living through this global event, and despite the fact that we’ve heard the word ‘unprecedented’ an unprecedented number of times in the past month, life is still going on. There is news of people being killed on the street – which compounds what people are feeling. It’s also the old regular world on top of all the stresses we are feeling due to COVID-19. The direct actions that we want are not available to us immediately right now. One of the things I’m seeing that has been a bit of a light during this dark time is that people are getting creative in this moment – using Zoom to produce work, whether its choreography or music videos. Developing an art practice.”

“I’ve heard this notion too that writers have been able to write their novels,” Nadia responded. “There is this push for people to use their time which can be negative by adding pressure. But I think there is this push for rethinking things, which can be helpful.”

Patches & Prayer Flags at the Kensington Storefront, February 6, 2019. Photo by Steve Weinik.

Slow Down and Prioritize 

The time and space given to (or feel forced upon) us during the pandemic offers the opportunity to assess what we’ve been doing, and determine what should stay and what should go as we move into a life with and beyond COVID-19.

“I have been quarantining by myself for the last 2 months,” said Swoon, an artist and frequent Mural Arts collaborator. “As an individual, trying to observe my own reactions and the reactions of people, where my heart and mind has been is in the core work of art and community. Creativity helps us focus, helps us calm, and helps us re-train our mind to the present moment. In my own life, a lot of the question is how to struggle less against the inevitability of this moment. We’re all having to do this thing together and it’s hard. So how can my creative practice help me resist less?”

Eduardo Collazo, Director of Multicultural Affairs at the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services said, “I think about how this is a constant loop. You wake up, you go to work or school. You go to bed, and you do it again. One of the things that this has done is stopped us in our tracks and eventually we will go back to a sense of normalcy – whatever that is going to be. This has caused us to think about how we do what we do differently so that it is healthy and it protects us.”

Art Saves, Art Heals 

“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration when people say that art saved their life,” said Swoon. “I was down in Alabama recently and I spoke to a doctor who was doing some studies on neuroplasticity and drawing and, essentially, what we’re finding in the prefrontal cortex is that time spent drawing is time spent building that part of the brain. There is this kind of spiritual side that we know experientially, but we’re also seeing in the science that art can turn us into stronger versions of ourselves.”

Art can also help people engage with public health messaging. Clayton said, “It’s really nice to see folks use what their avenues of expression are to help with practices around distancing and around love and support for folks. Mural Arts has been a great partner at our meal sites and our main building, whether its footprints on the ground or art on the mats for social distancing, to putting up temporary or long-range murals and supporting individuals who are doing those types of projects. I think there has been a humbling with individuals and groups of people and the fact that folks know that nothing is really guaranteed has really pushed people to do something, not based on it being perfect but to just contribute. That has turned into a lot of really good artwork and use of signage artistically which has been really helpful in trying to educate and tell a story.”

When asked by Nadia if art enhances public health messaging or if it would have the same effect if it wasn’t beautiful, he said, “No, I don’t think it would have the same effect. I think when you are on your grind, regular signage just becomes paper with words on it. But if it’s vibrant and it moves you, it keeps you alert, it keeps you aware, and it keeps you interested. Particularly at the site, the fact that folks can go to different spots and get a different message related to COVID-19, makes folks a little more educated.”

Quilting workshop with Rebecca Schultz, February 9, 2018. Photo by Steve Weinik.

Bridging the Gaps 

Dealing with social isolation has forced organizations to move their programming online. “I help coordinate events at DBHIDS, and the majority of those events are physical events where you have to show up to participate,” Cesar said. “I appreciate the boom of Zoom usage and it’s my hope that when we go back to doing programming that we can keep this. It allows us to create a bigger space for people who may not have had the time or means for these physical events. As far as accessibility, technology is something I’d like to keep moving forward.”

Nadia added, “The dichotomy is that for some people it’s not accessible, but for others it’s a lifeline.”

It’s not just programming that could see a shift to virtual over physical locations. Work and healthcare are two avenues that could see real benefits to permanently incorporating the virtual experience. Clayton said, “I think the need to go into an office all the time when you can do a lot of productive work at home is something that needs to be considered for the future.” Working from home eliminates commutes and reduces barriers to getting a job due to location or the need for reliable transportation. 

Telemedicine is essential for similar reasons. “Access points have been increased and restrictions have been lessened because of the need given social distancing. These things make so much sense, why did we wait for a pandemic to do them?” Clayton asked.

He continued, “I hope that people coming from my background as a harm reductionist recognize what we’re doing right now is harm and risk reduction. Maybe people are coming out of this thinking a little better of organizations like mine and Prevention Point that are doing this work. We’re all practicing risk and harm reduction at this time, and hopefully this will help people rethink that.”

Nadia added, “Most of the folks who work in Kensington are practicing the tenants of harm reduction and this is a global example of that. There was a move towards telemedicine for mental health care, which has been sped up now, giving people much more access.”

Take Care of Yourself, Take Care of Others 

Every week at the Mural Arts Porch Light staff meeting, the team talks about how we are taking care of ourselves and getting through this moment. Those conversations turned into a wellness kit (available on the website now) where each idea was illustrated. Nadia turned that question to the participants.

“I’ve been doing a lot of writing in the morning, some morning journaling,” said Swoon. “Because I’m working from home and there are so many unknowns, and there is this way where my mind can be this kind of nebulous mass. My mind responds to a little bit of discipline. I’m doing a full page of gratitude and I’m finding it really necessary because my mind wants to go off cliffs, or go down alleyways. But a little bit of repetition and gentleness and I’m giving myself the time to train some constructive positive thinking.”

Clayton said, “Reconnecting with my pet has definitely been good. Not that we have been apart before, but when you’re flying around town with all the responsibilities, you become forgetful of this large responsibility you have. mine is 130 pounds, and he is here, ready to connect. Being home and having the opportunity to go on our walks has been great – it’s an opportunity to get some exercise. And just sitting out on the lawn when it’s nicer out has been really rewarding.” 

“I’ve been reading a bunch. We’re entering month three of this so you’ve probably heard this a bunch, but sticking to your routine. Structure has been really helpful – just waking up at the same time, going to bed at the same time, having meals at the same time, working out at the same time. And literally just asking myself, how am I feeling today? I think we do this thing to ourselves that we do to other people where we ask, ‘how am I feeling’ and I just say, I’m fine. And having the knowledge to treat myself with a little more grace and asking myself how I’m really feeling is important,” said Cesar.

Eddie said “I’ve given myself permission to be okay in this space that I now have where I don’t have to interact with too many people. Where I’m interacting with folks at work and some in my personal life, virtually. Saying it’s ok to take time out and just sit with a book and read and to just sit and be quiet, which I do enjoy. So that’s been really good for me.”

“Giving yourself permission is so good,” Nadia responded. “I like to do a countdown of what I know and I got myself a coloring book!”

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you are struggling, the 24-hour mental health crisis line number is (215) 685-6440. You can also text the word “HOME” to 741741. 

Last updated: May 29, 2020

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