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Utah doctor weighs in on mental health: Don't let 2020 get you down

Matti Neer, McKenna Heugly and Sally Heugly pose by a sign in Murray on Sunday, April 12, 2020.  After finding the poster wadded up on her apartment building’s lawn, Sally Heugly bolded the letters and reinforced the poster with her daughter McKenna, and hung it on  the fence using zip ties, her neighbor Neer's idea. Sally Heugly said she thinks the sign was blown away by the wind after kids in neighboring homes hung it up down the road. “When I saw what it said it touched my heart. I was so happy to do it I said, ‘Oh, I hope I did it justice for them,’ I think it’s very important especially now,” she said.

(Ivy Ceballo, KSL)

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SALT LAKE CITY — In a year that's been filled with disappointment, loss and uncertainty, a Utah mental health expert said it is important to continue to look for the good.

"As humans we have evolved to be experts at survival — and we will survive this as well," Dr. Travis Mickelson, medical director of behavioral health integration at Intermountain Healthcare, said during the organization's COVID-19 update earlier this week.

While humans are hard-wired to focus on the negative things in life — things that aren't going well or that might hurt us — he said looking for the positives is a coping strategy that will get us through.

"2020 has been quite a year ... and as humans, that is not going to be helpful for our mental and emotional health," Mickelson said, adding that recent surveys show as many as 50% of Utah adults are currently experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Loneliness and isolation are also growing issues throughout the nation, with social gatherings limited and events canceled due to increased spread of disease, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.

Studies show that more than one-third of adults aged 45 and older feel lonely, and nearly one-fourth of adults aged 65 and older are considered socially isolated.

However, the most vulnerable group, Mickelson said, is Utah's young people, age 16 to 25, whose lives seem to have been uprooted completely. Behavioral health surveys show that at least 16% of teens and young adults in Utah have had thoughts of ending their own lives.

And as other states are seeing increased numbers of suicide attempts, that isn't the case in Utah, Mickelson said, crediting school, church and community support groups for reaching out.

"The support you are providing each other ... is working," he said, adding that Utah's young people need good role models — in most cases, that comes from parents and other adults or leaders.

"It's important as parents to take good care of ourselves, our own mental health in order to care for others in our families and our friends," Mickelson said. "Please be good role models. Please ask if you're concerned (about someone). And, please help us fight the stigma that there is something weak about asking for help."

Communities throughout Utah, he added, stand ready to help.

To help Utah's caregivers, who have been fighting the novel coronavirus on the front lines for eight months now, and have grown weary and frustrated, Mickelson said, "show them that we're behind this movement."

"We need the community to help us," said Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, infectious disease specialist with Intermountain. Despite frustrations, though, he said, Utah's health care workers will continue to "do our best."

Research has proven time and time again, he said, that if a person can identify three good things that happened each day for two weeks, the benefits can last up to six months.

"It can be as powerful at managing the symptoms of depression and anxiety as anything else," the mental health specialist said.

Help can also come from various mindfulness activities, including daily meditation or deep-breathing exercises, which work to reduce a person's heart rate and decrease the level of stress hormone that is released from all of life's happenings.

"These are active things we can do to counteract the stress response we are all feeling one way or another," Mickelson said. He pleads with all Utahns to help slow the spread of disease, which will help everyone get back to a more normal lifestyle sooner.

Intermountain hosts a free emotional health relief hotline — 833-442-2211 — a toll-free number available seven days a week, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., where anyone can call and get access to another human who can listen and is trained to provide helpful resources.

Also, anyone is experiencing thoughts of suicide can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 to speak with a counselor today.

Suicide prevention resources

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or exhibiting warning signs, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Additional crisis hotlines

  • Utah County Crisis Line: 801-226-4433
  • Salt Lake County/UNI Crisis Line: 801-587-3000
  • Wasatch Mental Health Crisis Line: 801-373-7393
  • National Suicide Prevention Crisis Text Line: Text "HOME" to 741-741
  • Trevor Project Hotline for LGBTQ teens: 1-866-488-7386

Online resources

In an emergency

  • Call the police
  • Go to the emergency room

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Wendy Leonard is a deputy news director at Prior to this, she was a reporter for the Deseret News since 2004, covering a variety of topics, including health and medicine, police and courts, government and other issues relating to family.


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