Pandemic can worsen mental health

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For many people, the coronavirus pandemic has brought an untold amount of uncertainty and stress to their daily lives. 

This, in turn, can drastically impact individuals’ mental health, regardless of whether they have a diagnosed mental illness. 

“Individuals struggling with their mental health are at a higher risk for symptoms related to anxiety, depression and panic, to name a few,” Human Support Services Executive Director Anne Riley explained. “However, someone does not have to have a diagnosed mental health illness to be affected by or suffer from anxiety, depression or panic during this current uncertainty. The lack of social and personal connections can cause people to feel isolated and lonely, which can lead to feelings of worthlessness, helplessness and even hopelessness over their situation.” 

This comes as HSS, which is considered an essential business as the largest provider of behavioral health services in Monroe County, is seeing fewer calls for new counseling services for both mental health and substance use. 

The court system is also currently not sending new referrals for HSS’ substance use disorders program. 

Since it is considered an essential business, HSS is taking precautions by switching all its outpatient services, which includes mental health and substance use focused ones, to telehealth. 

Additionally, staff who must be in the building for things like crisis services or housing programs are working from home as much as possible and taking preventative measures like wearing masks when meeting face-to-face. 

Some people HSS may meet in person are those who have serious mental illnesses exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, as Riley said those people can have symptoms like increases in mania or psychosis. 

But Riley stressed anyone can have mental health problems, especially during a stressful time like this. 

“Isolation and loneliness can affect everyone, and it will affect everyone differently,” she said. 

HSS Clinical Director Adam Woehlke also pointed out that people may be forced to take on new roles like teacher or caregiver and face pressure to do so perfectly from social media, which “can cause feelings of inadequacy and can also cause burnout.” 

The effects of this situation on people’s mental health can also manifest themselves physically, Riley said. 

That could include sleeping too much or too little, increasing the use of substances like alcohol or tobacco, eating too much or too little, isolating completely from contact with others, becoming frustrated more easily, feeling like you have a shorter fuse and fighting over trivial things. 

People may also feel heightened emotions, such as grief over the loss of normalcy in their lives, which Riley said is normal and “OK.” 

“It is important to remind ourselves that everyone is going through similar emotions,” she said. “(It’s also) important to talk about and/or recognize that we are experiencing these feelings so that we can process them in a healthy way.” 

Riley said seniors and those in nursing homes may find this situation particularly difficult because they cannot see their loved ones in person, even if they can communicate via technology. 

“It is very hard for an elderly individual, particularly one with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, to understanding what is happening now and why their family member cannot come in,” she noted. “It can increase the confusion.” 

Riley recommended individuals check on those around them who may be high risk, like seniors, to ensure they are coping with the situation. 

She also said everyone should strive to stay in contact and spend time with others through phone calls, texting, videoconferencing or simultaneously doing some activity like watching a movie to give you something to talk about. 

“During time where physical connections are limited, it is important to have meaningful connections and conversations whenever possible,” Riley said. 

Woelhke encouraged people to not push themselves too hard to be productive while they are staying at home, as that can lead to unnecessary stress. 

“It is also OK at this time to temper expectations and only do what you can realistically get done, especially if you are trying to work from home and provide a ‘school’ experience for your children,” he said, noting people can also take time to unwind by pursuing a hobby. 

Woelhke also emphasized the importance of taking care of your body through various forms of exercise. 

“Taking time to take care of yourself physically by eating healthy and staying active can help individuals relieve stress and help people stay in good physical and mental condition,” he said. 

Of course, those in need of help should also contact a mental health provider like HSS. 

Even if people do follow all that advice, Riley said the long-term effects of this pandemic on mental health will be significant. 

“I believe there will be an increase in the need for mental health services as people try to re-engage in their lives with the added stress of work needing to be done in the absence of the current workforce,” Riley predicted.

For more tips on mental health during a pandemic, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s coronavirus 2019 page on its website and click on “Stress & Coping” or go to the National Institute of Mental Health’s website at nimh.nih.gov. 

To contact HSS, call 939-4444. 

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