Six Ways to Come Together While Staying Apart During COVID-19

Six Ways to Come Together While Staying Apart During COVID-19

Karen Jones, RI International’s corporate administrator, said something to me today that stuck, “For many of us in the mental health field, work brings us a sense of purpose. It’s not only fulfilling but adds to our wellbeing.” We were discussing the COVID-19 quarantine and how social distancing has altered our day-to-day lives at whiplash speed. The world, as we know it, has screeched to a halt, and we don’t know when it will restart or what life will look like when it does. This is increasingly impacting communities and the nation as a whole. For graduating high school and college students, the separation is confusing—the months laid out before them vastly different than what they had envisioned. Many grade school teachers returned to their classrooms in the days after their schools shut down to find that the rooms still breathe life: chairs askew in whatever way their former occupants had haphazardly left them, and personal belongings in their cubbies. When those seats will once again have children fill them remains a question, resulting in uncertainty and a lack of closure: an unfinished chapter. Many teachers and students didn’t even get to say goodbye to one another. People who live alone are finding themselves particularly isolated, and families are struggling to figure out how to balance working from home and homeschooling their children. Those who are ill with the virus, who have a family member who is in quarantine because of exposure, clinical symptoms, a novel coronavirus diagnosis, or is hospitalized for other reasons are experiencing an especially difficult separation from their loved ones. These are indeed challenging times.

Unprecedented. That’s the word I keep hearing. People scratch at their minds to find the last time life was like this, pointing to Polio outbreaks before a vaccine was available in 1955 and the HIV/AIDS crisis in the ‘80s. Now there’s COVID-19, and similar to during Polio outbreaks, schools and theaters have closed, and people have been told to distance themselves from one another. The difference is that communities around the world are shuttered. Polio impacts mostly children, while the novel coronavirus appears to be far worse for the other end of the age spectrum, older people. However, we don’t yet know many of the nuances that come with this virus.

The novel coronavirus is altering so many aspects of our day-to-day lives, including our proximity and connection to one another. Jones said that for many people, stay-at-home orders might result in complete isolation, both literally and emotionally. The challenge, said David Covington, RI International’s CEO, is that social distancing is the only tool we have to fight the novel coronavirus, the very opposite of what many of us need during a crisis. When we spoke, he said the uncertainty of what’s to come as the crisis accelerates, and as we adjust to a new normal, will put a great deal of pressure on people. That’s particularly true, he said, of those working on the front lines in health care, including mental health. “We must distance ourselves from our extended family, friends, neighbors, and community—the very supports that nourish us as humans. How do we reclaim some of that joy during this process to keep us nimble enough to be part of the solution?”

I spoke with the company’s Peer Leadership Council to gather suggestions on how best to come together while staying apart.

Regular, Daily Check-ins

Lisa St. George, MSW, is in Phoenix, Arizona, and has daily check-ins with her team members. She says they must be in frequent communication during the workday, but that’s not the only reason it’s essential. “We are used to seeing each other a lot, and this is a way to help us stay connected while we work remotely.” Terrence Smithers chimed in, saying he particularly likes Tuesdays and Thursdays when they jump on a GoToMeeting video call. “We get to see one another.” He shares that working from home can quickly become isolating, pointing out that his pets are great to have around, but they don’t talk.

Kristen Ellis, a social worker in Riverside, California, says that she and the two people with whom she works most closely send one another texts throughout the day. It allows them to check in regularly when they don’t have the time or energy for more extended conversations. They touch base roughly four times throughout the day. Ellis finds that she sleeps better when the group maintains communication as it alleviates some of the stress she carries throughout the day. “Our programs are 24/7 and won’t close, so, in many ways, we are maintaining business as usual at a time when the rest of the city has shut down.” She laughs that an upside is that her Southern California commute and the sky are both much clearer than usual.

Jones pointed out in our conversation earlier that employers must be creative in how they conduct business at this time, making sure to support their employees. It’s also essential, she noted, that people maintain their personal networks of support. Over the past few days, Jones has had more calls and text exchanges with her sister than in the weeks before. “If anything, she feels closer to me regardless of the thousands of miles that separate us.”

It’s Okay to Feel How You Feel

Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg held a children-only press conference on Monday, and the gist of her message was: “It’s okay to be scared when so many things happen at the same time.” This is no less true for adults.

Judi Holder oversees direct services in San Diego, California. She says it’s essential to recognize that people have varying experiences, and that “it’s not just about the struggles of working from home.” Holder points out that front line mental health staff don’t have the option of working remotely because they provide services directly to people in need. As schools shut down and family members become symptomatic, whether they have the novel coronavirus or not, workers are struggling to meet all that’s required of them. She points out that as the virus spreads, mental health organizations across the country will have to quickly find ways to support employees while continuing to serve people in a mental health crisis. “As the COVID-19 crisis deepens, we need to permit people to feel exactly the way that they feel. This is a stressful situation for everyone, and it’s okay to acknowledge that and have all of the feelings that go along with uncertainty, disruption in routine, and the undefined end to the circumstances.” There’s often a misconception that hope can’t go hand-in-hand with concern, fear, or uncertainty. Holder challenges that thinking. “You can have hope and all of the other feelings that go along with what’s happening right now.”

Smithers says that his students, while following the rules of separation, are finding comfort in coming together. “The energy of people together is invaluable, whether you do it in person with social distancing or online.” He says that it’s equally important to validate when people are feeling okay. “It’s okay to feel okay.”

Navigating Conversations

Holder is finding creative ways to make sure people maintain the appropriate distance from one another by using a larger space and having people sit further apart. “We are navigating it while being flexible and positive, but we also want to acknowledge that it isn’t easy.”

In these high-stress situations, Holder says it can be useful to turn to someone you trust. A person with whom you can speak about your experience in an unfiltered way. On the front lines, particularly mental health workers in peer roles, a large part of what they do is encourage people to reframe. “It’s important that we have people who can do that for us as well. That means reaching out to someone who can validate where you’re coming from and be authentic, without evaluating how you’re feeling.” She says it’s also useful to be that person for others. It gets tiring, she notes, to have people say to look on the bright side or that it could be worse.

Ellis says the uncertainty has, at times, left her unsure how to respond, even down to whether she should be stocking up on more materials for her family. She notes that her three children are looking to her on how to react to the crisis. “I need to teach them resilience, realism, and, say, ‘You know what, it’s going to be wonky, and we have to learn to live with one another differently, but it’s okay if we aren’t panicking.’” Each day has presented its own challenges and corresponding emotions, notes Ellis, with her children asking why people are purchasing more toilet paper and why they don’t have a lot of it at home. They also ask her why schools are closed, yet they’re allowed to pick up lunch from school. “I have to figure out not only how I feel about it but also how I’m presenting it to my kids because they’re looking to me for how they’re supposed to respond.”

Being Aware That We Are Not All Having the Same Experience

These feelings aren’t either/or says Holder but reflect the entire spectrum of emotions from a tremendous amount of fear to a lower level of concern. People are experiencing unique challenges ranging from new employees who don’t have paid time off (PTO) and are unsure where they stand if their facility shuts down to “whether it’s a good idea to go to the grocery store if you need a gallon of milk.” She notes that stocking up isn’t available to many people, and the empty aisles are a source of stress. Michael Zeeb, a master instructor of applied suicide intervention skills training, suggests that companies create PTO banks, allowing those with more to share with those with little to none.

Christopher Bartz in Phoenix says he’s concerned about people who are homeless during this time. He helps coordinate housing, which is becoming increasingly difficult, and food banks are reducing the number of people allowed to come in to get supplies. “They’re overwhelmed and running out of food to give people.” Ellis says she’s been having a similar experience trying to keep the pantry stocked for adult full-service partnership programs in California. “It’s stressful. We are the go-to for people and can’t get enough food supplies.”

They all point out that, in conversations, with team members, colleagues, family, and friends, it’s vital to recognize that one person’s experience is not identical to that of another. The physical separation from one another, makes it particularly important, says Holder, to let people know that you want to be there with them, even if you can’t be, and to acknowledge how they’re feeling about the situation. “We need to make space to hear one another.”

Finding Hope and Community in the Chaos

Despite the turbulence that COVID-19 has thrust onto our lives, there are daily examples of people coming together. Ellis notes that when her mother was at the store recently, there was an interaction that could have quickly deteriorated into a Black Friday moment. She and another shopper simultaneously reached for the last package of ground beef. Instead of arguing over it, they asked the meat counter to split it. Ellis had a similar experience while shopping for facility sites. “I had to go to seven stores to make sure my sites were adequately stocked, which was stressful. A woman was holding her purchases, and my cart was only half full, so I asked if she wanted to share the cart. It felt good to be able to do so.” She notes that typically people go to the grocery store and barely pay attention to those around them. Instead, because of the shortages, she’s seeing an increased sense of community and people connecting. “It helped me to find joy while doing a daunting task.”

Helping Others

Giving back can be an essential part of a person’s resiliency and wellness. Zeeb says that’s true for him. That’s why he suggests people find ways to help others during this time. His feedback reminded me of a series of tweets by professional runner, Rebecca Mehra:

Mehra goes on to share that the couple, both in their 80s, didn’t have family nearby. The woman opened her window a crack, handed Mehra $100, along with a grocery list, and asked if she’d be willing to purchase their groceries. After Mehra bought groceries, placed them in the couple’s trunk, and returned the change, the woman told her that she’d been in the car for 45 minutes, “waiting to ask the right person for help.”

Zeeb says small, practical ways to help is positive for everyone: the person being helped and the one helping. For example, there are ‘caremongering’ Facebook groups popping up throughout the United States, Canada, and South Africa, organizing support for their most vulnerable community members. The groups focus on helping people access necessities such as food, housing, and healthcare. Zeeb says people can also aid those more vulnerable within their own social network. Once a day, he reaches out to his elderly aunt, asking what she needs and picking up items at the store for her. “If you’re unable to do that but have a phone, you can find other ways to give support.”

I’m grateful to the Peer Leadership Council for taking the time to speak with me. Thank you. Readers, what are your suggestions? What’s helping you during this challenging time? Please outreach me at

The feature image is from #CrisisTalk’s American Life in Pictures: COVID-19 Quarantine, click here to see more.


Stephanie Hepburn, J.D., is the Chief Content Officer at RI International and editor in chief of Hope Inc. Stories and #CrisisTalk. She believes that storytelling is a critical tool to help break stigma and discrimination, fostering parity and a pathway to hope.