For nearly a year, we’ve been told what to do to shield ourselves physically from COVID-19.

Now, a group of health care advocates is offering guidance on how we can protect our mental health during the pandemic, which one expert compared to a natural disaster.

Greater Columbia Accountable Communities of Health, a regional organization that works with communities on health care needs, launched its “Practice the Pause” program in mid-January.

The program teaches techniques for coping with the pandemic.

“While we know that we are solidly on the road to recovery, our research does show us it is going to take time to recover not just from COVID-19’s physical symptoms but really those behavioral health impacts of this pandemic,” Keri Waterland, assistant director of the behavioral health division of the Washington State Health Care Authority, said during a Wednesday news conference.

GCACH covers the Yakama Nation and Kittitas, Yakima, Benton, Franklin, Walla Walla, Columbia, Garfield, Asotin and Whitman counties.

The program is funded by$500,000 from GCACH, with Oregon-based Cambia Health Solutions putting up another $245,000 to cover the costs of training and printing materials, said Carol Moser, GCACH’s executive director.

The Yakima Health District also contributed almost $60,000 toward developing the materials, Moser said.

Lilian Bravo, the health district’s director of public partnerships, said the program fits in with the district’s goal of protecting the health of the community.

“Even though COVID-19 has been our primary focus, we have always been acutely aware of the different residual impacts on the community, such as behavioral health,” Bravo said. “Absolutely nobody has been left unimpacted by this.”

The program’s purpose is to give people coping skills to navigate what mental health experts describe as the “disillusionment phase” of the pandemic, the point in a natural disaster where optimism drops and discouragement increases

“COVID-19 is considered as a pandemic a natural disaster,” said Kira Mauseth, a clinical psychologist with Snohomish Psychology Associates and Seattle University instructor specializing in disaster behavioral health. “We know a lot about how people process a disaster and how we recover.”

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Waterland said the disillusionment phase extends into early 2021, with increased risk of suicide, despair and substance abuse.

A January report from the state Department of Health also warns that anxiety and other behavioral-health issues will continue, particularly as concerns about the availability of COVID-19 vaccine grows.

Mauseth said the means for coping with this phase of the pandemic come down to improving skills in coping, calming and caring.

Among the skills are taking a pause before automatically reacting to stress or negative information. That pause, she and others said, can be simple as taking a breath.

For example, a thought that the pandemic seems never-ending could lead to an automatic response of despair, but Mauseth said the idea is to pause and look for an alternative thought, such as that while the pandemic is lasting longer than anyone expected, it will end eventually, which gives hope instead.

Other skills include controlling one’s breathing and heart rate to avoid going into a panic mode she said, which further improves mental health.

Another step in building resilience is finding things one cares about and getting involved.

“It can be as simple as contacting a neighbor to getting involved in a cause,” Mauseth said.

To promote the ideas, GCACH has developed tool kits for parents, children and others.

GCACH has distributed kits in Catholic and public schools in the area, and there is evidence to suggest that they are working, said Robi Nelson, a clinical psychologist with Catholic Charities Serving Central Washington.

“The response has been overwhelming,” Nelson said, and parents are grateful for the program. “We’re doing evening programs with parents to cope with the emotional fallout from the pandemic.”

Moser said people can download the kits or request training in the techniques by going to www.practicethepause.org

Reach Donald W. Meyers at dmeyers@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: donaldwmeyers, or https://www.facebook.com/donaldwmeyersjournalist.