Opinion: COVID-19 pandemic is taking emotional toll
Dr. William Elsass and Meredith Smith
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
It’s no secret that the daily dose of disturbing news and all the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic has left many of us feeling anxious, scared and stressed. In a recent poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 45% of adults said the pandemic has harmed their mental health, and 19% said the pandemic has had a major impact on their mental well-being.
We don’t have much data yet on the long-term effect of the coronavirus on mental health, but we know that trauma — in this case potentially caused by sudden job losses, increased caregiving responsibilities and economic insecurity — can take an emotional toll. Couple these factors with a lack of access to traditional social supports, and it’s clear to see why so many say their mental health has taken a hit.
Of course, everyone will react to the coronavirus differently. However, experience has shown that when we disrupt the routines of people who are already dealing with depression or we restrict their access to typical resources, it can exacerbate symptoms. That can also hold true for individuals battling substance abuse issues.
Social isolation can also be particularly challenging for those at risk of suicide. Last month, two Air Force Academy cadets died by suicide after the academy instituted strict social distancing measures. We don’t know what role isolation might have played in those suicides or other factors that might been involved, but past studies have shown that a lack of social connections can have a negative impact on mental health.
With that in mind, we should make a special effort to stay connected to those who are at particular risk of suicide; that population may include people who have previously attempted suicide, those who have had a family member die by suicide, people with substance abuse issues, those facing financial instability and people with chronic health conditions.
What to look for:
Feeling sadness or even grief during this difficult time is normal, but what if those feelings become overwhelming? How do you know if you or someone you know is experiencing depression? Symptoms to keep an eye on include:
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Problems sleeping
- Lack of appetite
- Trouble concentrating
- Lack of interest in usual activities
- Low or no energy
- Feelings of worthlessness
Remember that any one single symptom in isolation may not be worth worrying about, but a constellation of symptoms should be noted. If the things that typically make you happy aren’t working to help bring you out of your funk, it may be time to seek help. Mind Springs Health and other mental health providers continue to offer services via phone or video. We also have a Mental Health Support line — 1-877-519-7505 — that is staffed by trained mental health professionals available from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Because depression increases the risk of suicide, it’s important to seek help early before suicidal thoughts occur. Keep track of warning signs, such as a preoccupation with death, dwelling on the negative, giving away possessions and an increase in self harm. If you have a loved exhibiting these behaviors don’t hesitate to call the Colorado Crisis Services line at 844-493-TALK (8255) or text TALK to 38255. It’s always wise to err on the side of caution, so even if you feel unsure about whether you’re in a crisis, the professionals staffing the hotline can help you decipher what action is needed.
Here a few other strategies to help manage depression during crisis:
- Consider focusing less on productivity. Putting pressure on yourself to clean out the garage or learn a new hobby may not be needed at this time. However, some individuals might need to be productive to cope with the situation. People deal with stress differently. Listen to your body and your feelings to ascertain what works best for you. Respect the differing coping mechanisms of those around you in a nonjudgmental manner. Likewise, be flexible with kids when it comes to completing remote learning assignments and homework. We’re in uncharted waters and more patience is required.
- Maintain routines. Replicate your old routine as much as possible. Set your alarm for the same time you did before stay-at-home orders were in place. Get out of your pajamas and keep up with your daily hygiene. Routines provide structure which is essential to creating a sense of normalcy.
- Set boundaries. People need each other, but they also need time away. Respecting each other’s space (even while quarantining at home) is important. For parents of teens, that might mean continuing to allow them to spend time on social media because it provides a way for them to connect with friends and express themselves.
For more information, visit the CDC’s site on Mental Health and Coping During COVID-19 at cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/managing-stress-anxiety.html or find helpful resources at mindspringshealth.org.
Dr. William Elsass is the chief medical officer for Mind Spring Health and works out of the mental health provider’s Frisco office. Meredith Smith serves as program director for Mind Springs Health’s Summit County practice.
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