Prioritizing Mental Health Extremely Important during PandemicOct 29, 2020 07:21PM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch
The fallout from coronavirus has resulted in a nation of overstressed and overanxious citizens. And it’s no wonder: between the social isolation of lockdown, fear of COVID-19, economic uncertainties, and parents trying to juggle jobs and managing their kids’ remote schooling, it can be overwhelming for even the most even-keeled among us.
While maintaining distance from others is crucial for our physical well-being right now, the trickledown effect from social isolation can be a mental health hazard, causing people to experience more anxiety and depression than ever before. Since the pandemic began, many counselors are seeing an increase of patients within all demographics.
“Overall, the stress level in society right now is at its highest level in 15 years,” said Dr. Craig Liden, the medical director of the Being Well Center in Gibsonia, who specializes in ADD/ADHD.
He said that people are stressing about the virus, disrupted routines, management of distance learning for their children, and worrying about meeting their families’ basic needs. He is seeing people struggling with drugs and alcohol, people with sleep difficulties, and people not taking good care of themselves.
More worrisome, he said that people with ADD, which represent 15 percent of the population, are at much greater risk for COVID as they often are unable to pay attention to or follow through with safety protocols.
Susan Young, clinical director with Samaritan Counseling Center in Sewickley, added that COVID has exacerbated pre-existing symptoms of anxiety and depression. Between the uncertainty of the pandemic and how long it will last, some people experience negative thought cycles that segue into narratives of hopelessness.
Although she sees and treats all demographics, she said that she’s noticed an increase in couples’ counseling. “It has restricted people’s activities that they’ve used to relieve stress—the gym, social activities, church—all of those things that are the normal part of the fabric of life. For couples, that whole balance between spending time apart and spending time together is thrown out of kilter without their permission,” Young said, adding that a stressful marriage can impact the whole family system.
School-age children are not immune from the mental health consequences of the pandemic, either; anxiety, depression and stress are on the rise in this population as well. Children are grappling with new learning environments, either in person or through remote at-home learning or a combination of the two, as well as having very limited activities and not seeing their friends.
Back in the spring, Shady Side Academy started preparing for the possibilities of the pandemic continuing into the next school year. “We all went online rapidly after spring break and realized our schedule isn’t really conducive to online learning,” said Senior School Counselor Creighton Runnette, MA, LMHC.
With some adjustments to the physical building and the way that classrooms operate, plus extensive safety protocols, the school reopened in the fall for full-time, five-day-a-week learning.
“The motivator here was an acknowledgement that kids crave social contact, and that they really feel grounded when they have the ability to be with one another and connect with one another aside from screens and video games,” said Dr. Claudia Henry, Ph.D., middle school counselor and director of personal counseling at Shady Side Academy.
Runnette said that mental health starts with relationships. “What sets us apart is we have the time and facilities to have those personal relationships with students. With that relationship comes trust and a sense of belonging and community. We’re being more intentional about how to form community this year among students and faculty,” he said.
Henry added that the advisory system is unique to Shady Side Academy. “Everyone here has the understanding that while it’s a prep academy, you’re also preparing students for life. We have to be aware of all aspects of children, not just their academic progress but character formation and mental health.”
Although every person who struggles with the pandemic has unique challenges, each of the counselors relies upon certain tools that have proven to be successful.
To deal with COVID-related stress, for example, Henry said that health classes are embedded with mindfulness and acknowledgement that COVID is something everyone has in common and taking safety measures is something everyone can do together to help take care of one another.
“What can you control? Keeping your mask on. Washing hands. Staying six feet apart. Simple things. Being intentional, this is the power you have over something that feels chaotic and scary,” said Henry.
Young, who takes a holistic approach to clients and develops strategies based on the resources available such as exercise, meditative practices or spiritual practices, also emphasizes the strategy of figuring out what you can control.
“So many people spend so much energy fretting, strategizing, plotting about things that they have absolutely no control over, and it is exhausting,” she said. “What we do have control over is the thoughts and decisions we make for the next big thing we do. I’m a big advocate of 24-hour living, tackling today what I can tackle today.”
Whether it’s due to COVID or something else, Liden said he counsels anxious or depressed patients to maintain a balanced, healthy daily routine. “Our mantra is eat well, stay active, be centered, get rest, take responsibility and maintain relationships; those are the core coping strategies.”
“The number one strategy is not to isolate; I try to communicate to parents that the kid in the bedroom with the phone or screen is not a good way to combat negative mental health symptoms associated with COVID,” added Henry. “You want to do everything contra to being alone in an isolated space.”
Of course, this can be tricky when getting together with people is discouraged, so she suggests getting outdoors or trying to engage in an activity that creates a sense of connection.
“One of the things we’re really trying to focus on with the kids is changing the mindset or paradigm that they have no power. They have a lot of power actually—there is power in handwashing, social distancing and wearing your mask,” she said.
On a positive note, the stigma of acknowledging anxiety, depression or any other mental health issue seems to be dissipating in today’s universally and extraordinarily stressful climate.
“I’d love to say that this will be a tipping point in our society that it really is ok to get some help,” said Young.
“The move to Zoom and to virtual therapy has actually increased access, so more people are seeking out virtual therapy than ever before,” added Henry.
Recognizing that anxiety and depression are soaring for many people, the counselors agree that it is important to seek help if needed.
“This degree of stress is greater than we’ve seen for many, many years. It isn’t the kind of thing you can ignore and expect it will go away by itself, particularly when all the other lifestyle routines we use as distractors or ways to get relief are more limited now,” said Liden. “Most people with depression and anxiety now need some level of added support. To just rely on yourself is an unwise proposition.”