COVID-19: Outbreak takes toll on mental health
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to many people feeling heightened levels of anxiety and depression.
By ERIN ROLL
On 9/11, Robert Davison, the head of the Mental Health Association of Essex and Morris, said he could see the Twin Towers fall from the back window of his office.
There are similarities between people’s anxieties in the days following 9/11 and what is going on with COVID-19, but there are also many differences.
“What I’ve never seen before is the ongoing sense of this, and not knowing when it’s going to end,” Davison said.
The COVID-19 outbreak has raised the anxiety of everyone. And for those who experienced anxiety on a daily basis prior to the outbreak, the stress of today’s world can be overwhelming.
Many are sad, tired and depressed because so much is still unknown about the disease and when it will end, and because of the isolation it has required.
Additionally, the virus is an invisible threat: “It’s pretty scary that something that’s invisible, something we can’t see, can dictate our lives like this,” said Robert Ciampi, a psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker in Montclair.
Davison said his association has seen that people are more anxious and more depressed than they were prior to the pandemic.
The MHA has been hearing from many people in the community, particularly families with children and teens, about dealing with stress and anxiety related to COVID-19 and social distancing while families remain locked in their homes.
“People are reporting that they’re getting a little antsy, especially people with children in the house,” Ciampi said. “It’s tough to maintain some sort of normalcy when the anxiety level is so high.”
Even a trip to the grocery store can now be a source of worry, he said.
When to seek help
The CDC advises that certain groups may be particularly at risk for heightened stress and anxiety during the outbreak. These include people who are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, children and adolescents, healthcare workers, first responders and other essential professions, and people who have existing mental health conditions, including substance abuse.
Davison said that everyone is likely to feel stress or anxiety in varying degrees during the outbreak, and that some stress, by itself, may not be a sign of more serious mental health issues.
What to look for is when the stress and anxiety make it difficult to function.
Some people may not seek help, wanting to wait for the outbreak to end, thinking they will feel better.
“This is the time to reach out. Not ‘when I’m feeling better,’ because therapy is when you talk about why you’re not feeling good,” Ciampi said.
He emphasized that there should be no stigma associated with seeking help.
Davison also recommends eating healthy foods, getting enough sleep, and getting exercise.
State and local resources
Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said that people, in general, can cope well with a situation that lasts two weeks, but “when it gets to be four weeks or six weeks, everything gets a little stressful.”
In March, the NJ Mental Health Cares Helpline, 866-202-HELP, received 3,162 calls, a 64-percent increase from March of last year.
“We’re also seeing more than double the call volume week to week,” said department spokesperson Natasha Alagarasan. “Calls went up from around 400 the week of March 1 to more than 1,000 the week of March 22.”
The department is also launching a videophone helpline for callers who are deaf or hard of hearing.
“Life has shifted dramatically and quickly – this causes us to feel that we are not in control, which adds to the intensity of these emotions,” said Mental Health Association of New Jersey President and CEO Carolyn Beauchamp.
Calls to the helpline will be answered from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week.
MHA has posted two videos on its social media feeds. One is targeted toward families with children, and the other is for a more general audience.
The Montclair public schools have also compiled a list of online resources for families and students, including videos on how to discuss COVID-19 with children and learning what signs of stress to keep an eye out for.
After the outbreak
Once the pandemic itself subsides, there will be the resulting mental health issues that need to be dealt with. “The way we see it, we’re concerned about the curve behind the curve,” Davison said.
Some people are going to have mental health issues related to the pandemic, including possibly post-traumatic stress disorder. “There should be no stigma because of this,” Davison said. “People are going to talk about how their lives were disrupted,” Ciampi said. Many families will find themselves wondering whether they can take a summer vacation, visit relatives, or have a birthday party for their children.
Ciampi said that the outbreak is going to be especially hard for people who are faced with the prospects of losing their businesses or their jobs permanently.
One thing that is crucial is maintaining connections with family and friends. As an example, Davison pointed to research done by Anna Freud concerning British children during World War II. Freud found that children who were evacuated from London into the British countryside during the Blitz fared worse, in terms of mental health and traumatic effects, than children who stayed with their families.
Things you can do
- Take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories, including social media. Hearing about the pandemic repeatedly can be upsetting.
- Take care of your body.
- Take deep breaths, stretch, or meditate.
- Try to eat healthy, well-balanced meals.
- Exercise regularly, get plenty of sleep.
- Avoid alcohol and drugs.
- Make time to unwind. Try to do some other activities you enjoy.
- Connect with others. Talk with people you trust about your concerns and how you are feeling.
Courtesy Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- New Jersey Mental Health Cares Helpline: 866-202-HELP (4357)
- Disaster Distress Hotline - Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: 1-800-985-5990