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Navigating The Profound Sense Of Loss And Mental Health Challenges During COVID: A Conversation With Jumaane Williams & Dr. Mark Epstein

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) - CBSN New York's Aundrea Cline-Thomas is continuing her in-depth conversations about how to navigate these uncertain times.

The coronavirus pandemic has been marked by a great sense of loss - whether it's the loss of a loved one, the loss of our good health, a job, or sense of normalcy. And no one is immune.

She spoke first with Public Advocate Jumaane Williams.

CLINE-THOMAS: Public Advocate Jumaane Williams has been talking about mental health for years, and we wanted to check in with him to see how he is navigating these difficult times. Thank you so much for joining us.

WILLIAMS: Peace and blessings, love and light.

CLINE-THOMAS: How are you doing right now? I often interview you in your role as public advocate but today I wanted to talk about you as an individual, first of all how are you? How are you doing right now?

WILLIAMS: I'm taking it day by day, I think people ask that question we usually answer, good, well fine, but I'm not sure a lot of us are.

CLINE-THOMAS: How do you check in with yourself? Do you have a process for how you check in with yourself and how you're feeling?

WILLIAMS: I pray every day, at least twice a day that's important to me, I try to take some time right after I wake up and right before I go to sleep to take a couple minutes for myself. I use the Calm app. One thing I discovered through doing therapy for many years, kind of just suppressing feelings of pain and other things, and I've had to often times check myself and say these feelings are real and you're allowed to go through them and experience them.

CLINE-THOMAS: Tell me about how you were feeling when you said "I am not OK" at a press conference after the killing of George Floyd? I want to take you back to a particular week that really struck me, it was after the Central Park incident, George Floyd had been killed. There was a press conference and your voice was shaking and you said "I am not OK" do you remember that?

WILLIAMS: I do remember that.

CLINE-THOMAS: Take me back to what you were feeling in that moment?

WILLIAMS: Generally when I am speaking, my secret is I'm usually trying to say things that I need to hear, because if I need to hear it then other people do as well. And being not OK was - I needed to hear that myself, I needed to hear other people saying that, and I just wanted to make that space for us to say that we are not OK. That's the first step in actually getting better and healing.

CLINE-THOMAS: How does your body feel when you admit to yourself, and others, that "I am not OK?" What is happening in your body when you say "I am not OK?" What do you notice is different about yourself?

WILLIAMS: And particularly as a male and black male you're taught through everything as you grow up that these are not emotions, you're supposed to allow to come out these are not emotions you're allowed to express. And so, they can manifest in very destructive ways and you're just trying to figure out what to do and I'm feeling upset angry, upset not myself… in those times I feel spaced out I feel not myself, I'm not fully here.

CLINE-THOMAS: What has therapy taught you about yourself? What has therapy taught you about yourself?

WILLIAMS: There's a lot of things that we carry through childhood and growing up and sometimes we excuse it but it does stay with you so I often think about the little kid who was in pain and trying to navigate his way through life and I sometimes think about him a lot and remember that person is still there.

CLINE-THOMAS: I've doubled up my session because of this time just been like I need to talk through some things, some people still feel like in our communities, specifically Black and Brown communities, it might just be a little too woo woo or I can just pray it away or you know living with hardships for so long, its just like this is how it is.

WILLIAMS: There's a thing called false consciousness that can happen individually or in a community when things are bad for so long you begin to accept that is the way it is. And it starts to manifest itself in destructive ways either internally or externally.

CLINE-THOMAS: What would you tell someone who says they're feeling overwhelmed? What can they do? What would you tell someone who knows that they are not feeling like themselves selves, they are in a state of overwhelm, they don't feel like they have the resources and that there are any other the options for them?

WILLIAMS: One, that is not an abnormal feeling, that is a completely human feeling and so nothing is going on that is particularly based in what is going on here. If you can find some strength, it is strength to reach out and ask for help it is strength to say I am having some trouble right now. Just ask someone for help, call a hot line, call someone, tell a friend. It's amazing just doing that one part can release so much and begin the process of healing and beginning the process of being able to cope.



Dr. Mark Epstein Interview

CLINE-THOMAS: To talk more now about mental health and how to cope is Dr. Mark Epstein, Dr. Epstein is a psychiatrist in New York City and the author of a number of books about the interface of psychotherapy and Buddhism. Thank you so much for joining us.

EPSTEIN: Pleasure to be here.

CLINE-THOMAS: When should someone seek therapy?

EPSTEIN: Where two people sit in a room together or on a zoom or on the phone just to talk about your feelings, what you're struggling with in your minds. It's such a gift, you don't have to be suffering terribly to seek therapy. Therapy is like having a friend to confide in and maybe you get some decent advice from.

CLINE-THOMAS: What are some of the common concerns your patients are having right now?

EPSTEIN: The uncertainty I would say is the key word and behind uncertainty, anxiety and depression.

CLINE-THOMAS: What are the differences between anxiety and depression? What does that mean?

EPSTEIN: The mind is just repeating the anxious thoughts, repetitive thoughts like I don't know what to do, that's the anxious side. Depressed side is ugh I just can't get going, I don't have an appetite, I don't know what to do with myself I don't want to get out of bed I just want to hide the people in my life I am supposed to care about I don't care about and no one understands what's happening to me. And a kind of loneliness, I would say loneliness that would be both on the anxious side or the depressed side.

EPSTEIN: People might get really depressed and not know they're depressed, the signs of a real clinical depression that medicine usually helps everything physical slows down. People have trouble sleeping or they sleep too much. They have trouble eating or no appetite or they eat too much. They lose their interest in sex or become totally preoccupied with sex. They're thinking but they can't really concentrate that's the other big sign of it. Or they might have suicidal thoughts, thoughts of hurting themselves. So that constellation is indicative of a depression where people should seek help and the medicines are very helpful, when they work, they really work.

CLINE-THOMAS: What tools do you give patients to use when they are experiencing anxiety or depression? And how are you helping them cope? How are you giving them tools?

EPSTEIN: Either the medicine or the meditation or the talking, I would say those are the three areas that I draw from.

CLINE-THOMAS: How does meditation work and how can it help? Talk about meditation, I've tried it, I feel like I can't get my mind to quiet.

EPSTEIN: No, you can't, nobody can.

CLINE-THOMAS: Ok, I thought I wasn't doing this right.

EPSTEIN: Everyone thinks oh I can't do this right I'm not doing this right. There's no doing it wrong that's the real thing. When I'm teaching meditation I usually start people not with the breathing but the listening. I'll have someone sit in a comfortable way and bring your attention to what is happening around you in sound. It could be the delivery people or the traffic or the dog, or it could be relative bits of silence. But were not going to push away unpleasant sounds and keep the pleasant ones were just going to let sound unfold as it wants to. So it's taking that attempt to control things which is really at the root of anxiety because there are so many things that are happening that we can't control.  You know. So when we sit at meditation its about giving up control.

CLINE-THOMAS: How do you deal with feeling overwhelmed? We have a viewer on Twitter who asked - it's @brian41852471 - he said how do you deal feeling overwhelmed?

EPSTEIN: So, the feeling overwhelmed while it's a true feeling it is only a feeling and when we learn to allow that feeling and leave it alone rather than being gripped by it then the feeling tends to take care of itself. And a moment might come where you are not feeling overwhelmed and that is such a relief.

CLINE-THOMAS: What are concrete steps they can take right now just to lead them towards just a healthier mental journey?

EPSTEIN: The first thing I think is really helpful is to make a schedule for oneself. It's very worth it to take a little bit of time just for yourself whatever situation you're in. that might mean getting outside first thing in the morning, that might mean setting up a place with some cushions and chairs before you get into work or turn onto tv, for sitting and listening to the sounds listening to your body and your mind. You really matter each and every one of you that light is inside of all of you and it needs to be nurtured.

EPSTEIN: If there are people that are listening to this that are hearing me talk about meditation, it's not a panacea it won't cure a deep depression but there are treatments, medicines, professionals there is help available and people should not hesitate to reach out for help.

No matter what you are going through, it's important to remember that you're not alone. There are ways to get low cost or free help in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

Here are just a few options:

New York City: NYC Well | 1-888-NYC-WELL (692-9355)

New Jersey: Mental Health Resources

Connecticut: Call 211 or CLICK HERE

Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation

Calm App



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