COVID-19: The mental side of a pandemic



By Jackson A. Thomas

The novel coronavirus pandemic has prompted unprecedented changes to the ways people go about their daily lives. Donning face masks, engaging in contactless meal deliveries or curbside pickups, and staying at least six feet apart in certain social settings such as grocery shopping are just a few things that have become normal.

While these activities are helping to curb the crisis in the physical sense, it’s important to maintain mental and emotional well-being, too.

“Depression and anxiety, as well as other mental health conditions, are on the rise during COVID-19,” says Wilfred van Gorp, former president of the American Academy of Clinical Neuropsychology in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “It is impacting people’s mental health due to isolation, the fear of contagion — which produces anxiety — and illness or death, financial hardships and the indeterminate nature of this. No one knows how long it will last.

“All these factors combine to make people more on edge and some depressed, highly anxious and even traumatized.”

Learning how the pandemic and the associated fallout is impacting mental and emotional states, what services are available to counsel people, how people can cope on their own, and why it’s important to maintain social connections virtually — all for the sake of better mental health.

Addressing the stigma

Because of COVID-19, the toll on Americans’ mental health is becoming quantifiable and palpable. Many people across the nation are experiencing an increase in anxiety, says Chelsea Woodard, a licensed professional counselor and the Nashville, Tennessee, site director of the Renfrew Center, a treatment facility.

“Anxiety is our bodies’ way of telling us to be alert and prepare us for something in the future,” Woodard says. “When it comes to COVID-19, experiencing anxiety can be helpful — it tells us to take healthy precautions, like good hand hygiene, social distancing and wearing a mask in public places.”

However, sometimes levels of anxiety or fear can become heightened and out of context, she says, making people expect the worst in situations when that’s not actually likely.

“It’s important for those struggling with heightened senses of fear or anxiety to talk about it with loved ones or a professional, to help them devise solutions to best deal with these tough emotions,” Woodard says. “Reminding yourself that taking simple precautions can greatly reduce your risk of contracting or spreading the virus is important to prevent ‘catastrophizing,’ or getting to a place where you might feel incapacitated to continue living your life.”

To also ease fear and anxiety about contracting the virus, it’s important for employers to take seriously the recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to create a safe workplace for everyone, Woodard says.

“Employees need to know they can feel as safe as possible and not have to experience extra worry that they could contract the virus or risk the uncertainty about how not returning to work could impact their livelihood,” she says.

Social distancing, also called “physical distancing,” “isolation” and “quarantine” have made their way into everyday lexicons, too. And they’ve all played a role in shaping mental well-being. For many, social distancing brings feelings of isolation, boredom, hopelessness, and feelings of “no end in sight.” A lack of social support and community involvement can also exacerbate the situation.

“Humans are social creatures,” says Jessica J. Ruiz, chief psychologist and director of behavioral health at the Behavioral Health Associates of Broward County and the Counseling Centers of Goodman JFS in Florida. “Much of our lives and daily activities involve interacting with others in some way. In fact, research has found that people who report having a strong support system tend to fare better than those who do not after stressful or traumatic life events. Relationships and connections are essential to our well-being. Social isolation on the other hand has been linked to depressed mood, anxiety and other behavioral health challenges.”

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