At times, optimism has been hard to come by during the coronavirus pandemic.
As Rhode Island continues to recover, though, Tri-County Community Action Agency Director Patricia Sweet and Johnston Prevention Coalition Coordinator Jessica Parylak are looking to “radiate positivity” throughout the community. Partnering with the Johnston Police Department, the organization placed signs at more than a dozen locations across town urging passers-by and residents to smile and pass on those warm feelings.
“We’ve always strived to address mental health with parents and with students, and with COVID going on we thought that it would be a great idea to promote mental health at this time,” said Sweet, who doubles as the director of the Southern Providence County Regional Coalition. “Each coalition decided how they wanted to address mental health and we had suggested that every coalition have signs.”
“We basically came up with some different themes that were themes of encouragement and the coalition voted on it, so that’s how that wording got out,” Parylak said.
Sweet and Parylak said during an interview last Wednesday that the pandemic has taken a toll on mental health everywhere, and the ability to reach people has been severely hampered. Parylak said social media and the local schools have been effective in getting messages out, but overall “the reach has been the toughest part for us at a professional level.”
Sweet noted that, while they don’t necessarily see the effects on mental health one-on-one, at-home learning has caused a significant amount of stress for students and leaves them “extremely pressured.”
“We’ve seen the whole community really being severely impacted by the pandemic, between education, isolation, [being] cut off from socialization, not being able to go anywhere, not having contact – it’s just been the same throughout all of the communities that we work with,” Sweet said.
COVID-19 has forced the agency to go digital with some of its previous initiatives as well. Sweet pointed out the “five signs,” which some may recall seeing on a prominent billboard just across from the Johnston Police Department’s headquarters, and the larger Change Direction initiative – one that received international support from public figures like Michelle Obama and Prince Harry. The five signs, according to Change Direction’s website, “may mean someone is in emotional pain.” They include personality change, agitation, being withdrawn, poor self-care and hopelessness.
With the help of NBC10, the coalition created a PSA to air in its communities – which also include Cranston, Smithfield, Scituate and North Providence – urging parents to look for the five signs in their children. If kids are exhibiting any of them, Sweet said families can be referred to local community health centers or Kids’ Link, a program created by Bradley Hospital with around-the-clock online availability.
“What it’s trying to do is get people to recognize the five signs and ask and refer, so if you see a friend who’s exhibiting any of these five signs, ask them if they’re OK, and if they’re not OK, find somebody you can refer them to,” Sweet said. “So what we did was that last year, the whole campaign was really geared toward students in the five towns within the region to join the campaign and make a pledge to notice the five signs and if they see somebody [with them].”
The agency also issued a coronavirus edition of its Raising Healthy Kids newsletter. That particular issue dealt with breathing exercises and detailed ways in which students and parents can alleviate stress. It was posted on Facebook and sent to all families through a school email.
The recent summer edition, Sweet said, dealt with the increase in alcohol sales.
“Alcohol sales went up 53 percent,” Sweet said. “Parents are role models and with them increasing the sales of alcohol in the homes, it also increased the access for kids … if you’re using alcohol to reduce your stress, there are other ways you can reduce stress and we listed that in our Raising Healthy Kids newsletter and there were also guidelines on how to be a good role model when it comes to drinking. Your kids are watching you and you really need to practice these guidelines to be a good role model during this time.”
Sweet said that Tri-County put another PSA out to the entire region regarding medication-assisted treatment at their various health centers, as isolation could increase the amount of people who rely on opioids.
The organization continues to promote its opioid and medication disposal kits as well, which can be mailed to interested families in an effort to keep them “out of reach of those who are seeking drugs.” Those who would like more information about the kits can visit tricounty.org/spcr.
Sweet is also seeking to target youth ages 12 to 18 with a digital media campaign regarding marijuana use. She said the PSA has been in the works, but it was put on pause because of the pandemic.
“We know that youth are going to, during this time, increase their usage of marijuana to help reduce stress, because that’s what they all say they use it for,” Sweet said. “We had to put that on hold until the Governor allowed certain groups to get together. I have the URI Media Center working on the PSA. I just sent them the script yesterday or the day before, and once that all becomes tangible, then it’s going to go into digital media targeting youth 12 to 18 years old.”