mental health feature

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How are you feeling? It’s a question most often associated with physical health, but due to the far-reaching impacts of COVID-19 on American life these days, many could answer that question with, ‘stressed, anxious, maybe even a little depressed.’

Behavioral health experts and doctors are watching coronavirus’ mental health impact very closely these days, and while some are seeing an increase in the number of patients seeking treatment, most say only time will tell what the virus’ lasting impact on the mental health of society as a whole will be.

“The whole body goes through this malaise (COVID-19). The same analogy (applies) to the world  — financial, social, transportation, dealing with family, employers  — it has affected every aspect of human life,” observes Dr. Jay Patel, medical director for Memorial Satilla Health’s senior behavioral center.

Nearly half (45 percent) of adults in the United States report their mental health has been negatively impacted due to worry and stress over the virus and a federal emergency hotline for people in emotional distress registered a more than 1,000 percent increase in April compared with the same time last year.

In April 2020, roughly 20,000 people texted the federal hotline, run by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Talkspace, an online therapy company, also reported a 65 percent jump in clients since mid-February.

Americans sheltered in place reported more negative mental health effects than those who maintained more normalcy by working through the pandemic. The same pattern holds true with those who’ve lost income or employment as a result of COVID-19 shutdowns  — 54 percent of those who lost their jobs reported negative mental health impacts from worry or stress over coronavirus, compared to 40 percent of those who did not.

Many of those Americans live right here in Southeast Georgia and even in Pierce County.

Patel has also observed an increase in patients presenting with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms recently, and he attributes that, at least in part, to the stresses of COVID-19.

“I have encountered one PTSD exacerbation and a whole lot of depression and anxiety worsening among the patients I’ve seen in the last two months in different settings,” Patel says.

Mental health providers at Unison Behavioral Health in Waycross have also observed an increased demand for mental health services.

“Our clinics and inpatient facilities have seen an increase in anxiety levels, depression related to isolation, increased life-stressors related to losing employment and being unable to gain employment, financial insecurity, and overall health and wellbeing,” reports Unison Clinical Director Tiffany Henderson. “We have also observed an increase in individuals experiencing what we refer to as “set backs” in substance abuse recovery.”

Henderson says more patients with no history of mental health treatment are also presenting with a mental health crisis.

Most traumatic events happen in an instance. Not so with COVID-19.

People experiencing a direct impact from the pandemic  — whether fighting the disease personally, losing their job or a loved one as a result of the virus  — are suffering from the trauma for weeks and months at a time. The impact of a drawn out traumatic event bewilders Patel.

“We have no idea what kind of psychological imprint it will leave down the road,” he says.

Experts do know PTSD and other mental health disorders go hand in hand. PTSD patients often experience depression, suicidal thoughts, anxiety and substance use disorders. PTSD patients are 3-5 times more likely to also have depressive disorder, Patel reports.

What do we do to stave off mental health issues? If you’re struggling, don’t ever keep it to yourself.

“Social distancing doesn’t have to be emotional distancing,” Patel points out.

Utilize the extra time sequestered with family for meaningful conversations, but avoid unnecessary talk or “knit-picking” Patel advises, and know when to give loved ones space.  

“Family can be fun and family can be stress(ful) … Be cognizant of that  — too much of a good thing can be a bad thing also,” Patel says. “Just take a break, but not for long. Do come back.”

The behavioral center director likens this tricky balance to learning a new dance step.

“This thing has forced us to do a dance we’re not accustomed to. There are going to be some awkward steps,” Patel says with a laugh.

And, don’t be aimless. Keeping even the smallest of schedules or routine gives people a sense of purpose which goes a long way toward combating depression, anxiety and other mental health struggles.

Henderson agrees.

“Engage in routine activities, increase physical activity, healthy eating and sleep patterns, take medications as prescribed, connect to your spirituality, spend time outdoors, limit exposure to news media/electronics, try a new hobby and focus on what is going well in the moment,” she advises. “If you are feeling concerned for a friend or loved one, don’t hesitate to ask if they are okay and link them to resources if needed.  Remember you are not alone and reach out to resources available to support your mental health needs.”

The unknown impacts of COVID-19 alone are enough to stress the healthiest most mentally balanced Americans.

Is there any good news through this crisis?

What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, and we’ve been given an opportunity to discover strengths that may have laid dormant if not for the pandemic, Patel says.

“(COVID-19) allows for some exploration and the lessons learned in this catastrophic thing (are valuable),” Patel observes. “Look at how close it has brought, not just the community, but as a state, nation, globally … It’s almost like group therapy for the world that COVID has created. That is intrinsically valuable to all humans.”

Editor’s Note: Saturday, June 27, was designated by the U.S. Senate as national PTSD Awareness Day, and the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder designated June as PTSD Awareness Month. This article was written in conjunction with PTSD month.

SIDEBAR

Parents may wonder how their children are faring through the COVID-19 pandemic, but have little time to talk with them while simultaneously grappling with the financial, social and health impacts of COVID-19. Providing for the daily, immediate needs of their family takes priority for most adults.

The generation now approaching adulthood has been tagged the ‘loneliest generation in America’  — a byproduct of technology and ever-evolving social media.

Will the isolation caused by COVID-19 compound that phenomenon or drive young people to seek more face-to-face interaction?

Lauren Davenport, a sophomore psychiatry major at Kennesaw State University, who recently interned with Memorial Satilla Health’s behavioral center medical director, Dr. Jay Patel, predicts the response from her peers will be “a mix of both.”

“I think there is definitely going to be a problem with social intimacy. It’s concerning because we know depression, anxiety and social anxiety are all a result of loneliness and we’re already considered the most lonely generation,” Davenport told The Times recently. “But, a counter argument to the fear we won’t be social, is now we really crave it. Now that we’ve learned what it’s like to not have that in our lives … there are Facetime dates and five hour phone calls.”

Davenport’s generation (young adults 18-25) typically connect with friends and family via text message or through social media. Before COVID-19, phone calls or lengthy face-to-face interaction was rare.

That has changed. But, Davenport expects it’ll level out a bit once the virus has passed.

“I think there will be more separation (after the fact),” she says. “It’s going to become less of a health concern and more of a social faux paus to be in people’s close spaces.”

Davenport recently conducted an online survey, an Instapoll, of her peers regarding the mental health impacts of COVID-19.

When asked if their stress and anxiety levels had increased or decreased in the last few months, the results were mixed. Most said their stress level was higher due to “the unknown” and as parents exerted more control over their lives since they moved back home, but others said the absence of school, more time for self-care, relaxation and investing in hobbies had brought their anxiety levels down.

Young adults and teens most significant fears through the virus are loss of a loved one, uncertainty of the future, economic decline and an acknowledgement the world may never be the same or return to pre-pandemic normalcy.

Still, young adults Davenport polled recognized social distancing had impacted them positively in several ways  — extra family time, rest, more time for studying, to spend with pets or to pursue new hobbies, time to diet and exercise and invest in meaningful relationships.

It’s a new landscape for everyone  — children, adolescents, teens and adults  — but those Davenport polled were hopeful for the future, even while recognizing a new normal is much more likely than a return to the way it was.