Behavioral health expert: Set clear boundaries at home from work

Otlowski Center in Perth Amboy offers tips during Mental Health Awareness Month

Working from home has helped keep employees safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it also has blurred the lines between work life and home life, making people feel they are “always on.”

So said Jim Cunningham, the executive director of the George J. Otlowski Sr. Center for Mental Health Care in Perth Amboy.

“It is key for workers to set boundaries, making a clear break from work by shutting down work-related technology (if possible) at the end of the workday and beginning their home life,” he said.

The center is one of the last community mental health facilities in New Jersey. Cunningham said its role in caring for those with behavioral health issues during the pandemic cannot be overstated.

“We have seen individuals seeking assistance for COVID-19 burnout who had never sought out mental health care services prior to the pandemic; it is affecting everyone,” he said. “We want the community to know we are here to provide much-needed hope and guidance to navigate these difficult times.

“No one is immune to mental health issues, whether you suffer from a serious, chronic illness or are experiencing periodic anxiety from the daily stress of COVID-19.”

That’s why, in conjunction with May being Mental Health Awareness Month, the Otlowski Center is offering these tips to support mental health:

  1. Find time to disconnect from day-to-day life: This includes simply disconnecting digitally, as the pandemic has forced everyone to be digitally tethered. Instead, read an adventurous book, take a walk in the park — preferably one that is different — try a new recipe, start coloring — anything to break your routines;
  2. Connect with family and friends any way you can: Distance makes the heart grow fonder, but not during a pandemic. It is important that people find new ways to connect with family and friends — if there’s Zoom fatigue, try writing letters or sending postcards via the U.S. Postal Service. Writing letters is a lost art and the anticipation of receiving letters is exciting;
  3. Avoid social media: Social media can be misleading, not only because of people posting exaggerated lifestyles, but also because fake news and hearsay are rampant. During this COVID-19 crisis, it is imperative that residents get news and information from credible sources such as major newspapers to stay educated and empowered;
  4. Treat yourself: The pandemic has asked a lot of people. From helping elderly loved ones to homeschooling small children, everyone has been asked to give more of themselves to others. It is key that individuals focus on self-care, which can come in many forms. Whether it is doing something nice for oneself (e.g., a relaxing bubble bath, online shopping, etc.); exercising; just getting some alone time; or taking care of one’s health by visiting doctors for regular checkups, thinking of oneself should not be confused with being selfish.

The center, which is sponsored by the Middlesex County Board of County Commissioners, has continued to operate without disruption, providing critical services to the community during the pandemic. In fact, it expanded its staff of more than 45 licensed mental health professionals to meet the growing needs of Middlesex County residents in this uncertain time.

The center features an outpatient department, partial care program and medical unit. It offers treatment for a wide range of emotional disorders, including anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, marital and family issues, and other problems related to daily life.

Clary Azcona-Barber, a county commissioner and chair of its community services committee, said the county puts its full support behind the center.

“Mental health is crucial to our overall well-being, and the board of county commissioners recognizes the importance of providing necessary services to our community to ensure they have a place to go when in personal crisis or in need of psychological consultation,” she said. “The county has championed and supported the Otlowski Center since its inception, and we will continue to commit funds and resources to enhance its services.”

Ronald Rios, director of the board of county commissioners, said its mission is a key part of care in the county.

“Besides the core CDC guidelines for COVD-19 safety, what’s equally important to be mindful of is our mental health during this ongoing pandemic,” he said. “While we know social distancing and other rules are keeping us safe, it is also impeding on our human need to feel connected, and this lack of connection is starting to impact individuals in a number of ways.

“The services offered by the Otlowski Center are crucial during this time. The board of county commissioners continues to fund and prioritize mental health care in our county.”