by Terry Rogers
The Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report from the Centers for Disease Controls released this week revealed that 41 percent of those who responded to a survey created by the agency reported they faced mental health challenges related to COVID-19 and the steps taken to reduce its spread. The survey was completed from June 24 to June 30. Locally, mental health professionals say that financial difficulties, anxiety about the virus itself, isolation, and stress in the household could result in a deterioration of mental health which could lead to substance abuse, domestic violence and suicidal thoughts.
“Although our programs do not specifically treat substance abuse, some clinicians have noted patients reporting increased use of alcohol and other substances as a means to cope with COVID-19 related changes,” Stacie Smith, a licensed social worker with People’s Place, said. “Increased stress levels and social isolation related to the pandemic can increase one’s susceptibility to substance abuse and misuse. For those individuals who have a history of addiction, an increase in stress may increase their susceptibility for relapse.”
Currently, Smith stated that People’s Place has not seen an uptick in suicidal behaviors related to COVID-19 but also warned that it is too early to determine what impact the pandemic will have on suicide rates There is currently not enough data available and it is possible the actual statistics will not be evident for several years.
“I have noticed that the stay-at-home orders have increased both objective and subjective periods of isolation and boredom,” Smith said. “That can be difficult for anyone to manage but may worsen symptoms in folks who already suffer from mental illness. People worry about when they will be able to see loved ones again, to be able to enjoy activities they once found pleasurable. On the other end of the spectrum, the stay-at-home orders have also prevented members of the same household from getting any separation from loved ones, which can increase tensions and conflict.”
Financial concerns are another issue that could impact mental health, Smith explained. Financial strain can lead to depression, anxiety and stress. In addition, people may be anxious about getting sick or passing the virus to a loved one. Smith stated that this can create fear, and although fear is an aspect of daily life, many Americans are not accustomed to dealing with it or understand how to deal with the feelings it brings.
“COVID-19 has challenged peoples’ sense of safety, which can exacerbate a person’s experience of depression and anxiety,” Smith said. “People are reaching their abilities to cope because of the duration of the pandemic, Uncertainty is fueling anxiety for many people. We will not know for a long time what the long-term effects of the pandemic will be on our individual and collective mental health for some time. However, in the short term we know that people are worried about their health and the health of their loved ones. People are worried about how to pay their bills or whether they will have a job to go to the next day. People are worried about not being able to see medically vulnerable family members. Parents are having to make difficult decisions about what they feel is best for their children and family with regard to returning to school. We know that people who have currently or have had periods of mental illness in the past are more likely to experience a recurrence of symptoms during the pandemic given the isolation, uncertainty and fear that it has brought.”
Although the pandemic has been challenging for many people, Smith does not feel that the cause of mental health issues in the area have changed since the pandemic began. She pointed out that a history of mental illness, financial stressors, social stressors, a history of trauma, family history of mental illness, complex medical diagnoses, race, gender and countless other factors contribute to mental health and did prior to COVID-19. However, when a person’s individual and unique stressors outweigh their ability to cope with those stressors, their mental and physical health may suffer, Smith added.
“If you are concerned about any aspect of your health, physically or psychologically, you should not hesitate to consult with your doctor,” Smith said. “Mental health impacts physical health and vice versa. If you would not ignore a shooting pain in your body that is indicating something is wrong, you should not ignore a chronic emotional or mental condition that could be treated. Early detection and treatment typically lead to a better prognosis, much like physical health.”
When it comes to helping a loved one that seems to be suffering mentally, Smith explained that it can be difficult to know what to do.
“It is important to take into consideration your loved one’s right to self-determination,” Smith said. “You might consider speaking with your loved one about your concerns, however, you should understand that the decision to get treatment or not is their own. You should not force anyone into mental health treatment. The exception is if your loved one is a danger to themselves or others. In this case, you could reach out to the Mobile Crisis Unit or to the police in emergency situations. If you are worried that your loved one may hurt themselves, stay with them until help arrives. You should consider removing any firearms, other weapons, medications or anything else that may be used to self-harm from the immediate area.”