By Mike De Felice
Special to Kitsap Daily News
PORT ORCHARD — Though the steel-gray skies now hanging over Puget Sound accurately reflect our mood during this COVID-19 period, there’s a ray of sunshine peering through with the introduction of vaccines that promise to stem the pervasive tide of illness and death across the globe.
But while the widespread use of the vaccines is likely months away, people near and far still need to find ways to cope with the pandemic.
U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer of the 6th Congressional District in Kitsap County has heard from some of his constituents how they have been dealing with the impacts of the crisis.
“I talked to a small business owner who said he has not paid himself since this began because he is trying to keep people on the payroll,” Kilmer recounted.
“A woman told me she used to organize the food drive at work, and for the first time in her life, she had to go to the food bank because she couldn’t figure out how to feed her family without the help. There were people dealing with housing insecurity and food insecurity, [and] economic insecurity even before the pandemic, and it has certainly exacerbated their challenges,” the congressman said.
Kilmer took action early on during the pandemic that allowed him to discover firsthand how the pandemic was impacting his constituents.
“I made a decision seven or eight months ago when someone reached out to my office having lost a job, or lost a business or lost a loved one because of this pandemic, that I wouldn’t send them a form letter but rather I would call them. So I have had dozens and dozens of conversations with people who undeniably have had a really challenging year.”
The accounts of people undergoing hardships during the pandemic have had an impact on the lawmaker, who at press time was working with others to get another relief bill passed in Congress.
“[Hearing the stories] has heightened my sense of urgency to make sure people get the help they need. They made me a stronger advocate,” Kilmer said.
Mental health assistance
Life’s daily challenges are enough to stress out many, but combine those with COVID concerns, and life becomes paralyzing. Some trying to contend with the increased stressors have turned to Kitsap Mental Health Services for assistance.
Interestingly, the mental health agency, which services 6,500 children and adults annually, has not seen an increase in those seeking services. That may be as a result of people staying at home because of the pandemic and not leaving unless it’s absolutely necessary. Statistics haven’t yet been gathered on how many have turned to KMH for COVID-related issues, but it is clear that their health concerns have played a role.
“The number of people seeking services for the first time is down,” Doan said. “Individuals are far more careful about going out, so health care as a whole has had a decline in the number of people seeking services. But it’s starting to tick back up. People are being very careful about their need to go out into the public,” she noted.
“The people coming to us for the first time seeking treatment are not coming primarily for COVID-related reasons, but it does come up during the discussion as somewhat of a triggering event, or one that might exaggerate symptoms for which they are seeking help,” said Rochelle Doan, the agency’s chief advancement officer.
The nonprofit organization helps a wide range of individuals — everyone from a working parent who is overwhelmed with juggling working at home and helping the kids with their online schooling to a family bread-winner who lost their job due to COVID-related cutbacks.
While it cannot be directly tied directly to the pandemic, KMHS clients are facing more conflicts related to drug and alcohol abuse concerns.
“We are seeing an increase in requests for substance-abuse assessments among the people we see as clients. One of the ways people cope with depression, stress and anxiety is the use of legal and illegal substances,” Doan said, who added that this trend is rising statewide.
The mental health center has also addressed a recent increase in individuals experiencing relapses.
“This is pretty typical around the holidays, so it’s hard to say how much of this is due to COVID,” she said.
Traditionally, the holidays are times when there are more family contact and alcohol use — a combination that can lead to increased stress and conflict, Doan said. After Christmas, there often is a spike in the number of people seeking treatment.
This year there are unique issues causing stress and anxiety, Doan noted. Some are not able to see family members for health and safety concerns. Individuals are feeling stressed or worried about their loved ones being exposed to COVID. And some have to contend with losing a relative to the virus.
A search for spiritual help
For many, an important resource during this unusual year has been spiritual in nature.
“Our church has become a source of weekly encouragement. It’s re-establishing that we will make it through this,” said Tim Blair, pastor of the Ekklesia Church, a small Port Orchard-based religious congregation.
“It’s been a difficult time for most people and has challenged all of us to rethink how we do business or interact with friends and family.
“The level of fear of the COVID issue has created a fear of coming together or of what the future holds. For some, hearing about the news of the death count that keeps going up and up and up is a real difficult issue to deal with, so it has emotionally impacted them a lot,” Blair said, who is also a chaplain for South Kitsap Fire and Rescue.
From Blair’s perspective, having folks get together — when comfortable doing so — allows people to help one another.
“We can’t hunker down and isolate so much [that] we destroy our economy or our community. We have to be there for each other at this time,” he said.
The Ekklesia Church is mobile with no brick-and-mortar location. The congregation has worshipped at a variety of locations, ranging from the homes of members to parking lots to its current location — the banquet room of a local restaurant.
While there is light at the end of the proverbial tunnel known as COVID-19, people locally and those across the globe will have to stick it out at least a few more months before there is a return to a semblance of normalcy. Meanwhile, there are practical avenues open to individuals seeking help.
U.S. Rep. Kilmer invites anyone with an issue with any federal agency to contact his Bremerton office at 360-373-9725. Kitsap Mental Health Services also stands at the ready. To access KMHS, call 360-405-4010 or access its website at kitsapmentalhealth.org. For immediate needs, the 24/7 crisis line number is 888-910-0416.