Spring has brought much hope to the country. More than 200 million vaccine doses have been administered, an increasing number of schools are reopening for in-person learning and families are reuniting after too many months apart. However, just as the COVID-19 pandemic seems as if it’s under control, there is another wave to be aware of, according to mental health professionals.
A new report from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention found the number of adults with recent symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder increased from 36.4 to 41.5% between August 2020 and February 2021. Adults are reporting difficulty sleeping and eating, and an increase of alcohol and substance abuse, all due to worry about the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yet what makes this mental health crisis unique is the uncertainty of what’s to come. Jaime Angelini, statewide director of disaster services and special projects, Mental Health Association in New Jersey, says her agency has responded to disasters in the past—9/11 and Hurricane Sandy among them—but those were different.
“In those events and with other natural disasters, there’s a beginning and an end. With the pandemic, the question is, ‘When will it end?’” she says. “Month after month people are wondering if they will lose their job, if their kids will go back to school, will they be going back to the office. This is why we’re seeing the increases in fear and anxiety.”
The experiences were not limited to those already living with a mental illness, she adds. “Everyone has been impacted across the board and we’re supporting anyone and everyone. Our call line doubled, which is not a bad thing because it means people are reaching out for emotional support.”
In particular, parents, health care workers, teachers and children have been among the groups seeking support, says Caitlin Archibald, a licensed professional counselor and certified clinical trauma professional who recently opened The Chrysalis Counseling Center.
“I would say that many new clients had never seriously entertained the idea of seeking therapy prior to the pandemic,” Archibald says. “It appears that, in general, people are experiencing heightened levels of anxiety and stress coupled with dissatisfaction in many areas of their lives. The pandemic has made people feel lonely, disconnected, frightened, unsafe, frustrated and overwhelmed. Many clients report feeling stifled by having their whole life contained to their house in addition to the overwhelm of attempting to balance all of their life roles without any separation or space between them. We have all lost access to some of the things we enjoyed that would help us cope with stress and negative feelings prior to the pandemic. This is leaving many with a sense of grief.”
Angelini says the blurring of work/life boundaries is a commonly expressed concern. “Home became work, work became home and people felt the need to work at any hour, or skip lunch to get more done. And then if you were also a parent, your life flipped and it took people a while to figure it out.”
Through it all, children have been picking up on those nuances too. “Our kids are watching us,” Angelini continues. “If we’re watching news about COVID or they hear us talking about work, someone getting sick or financial concerns, they are picking up on it. It’s important to have honest, age-appropriate conversations with them and model good stress management and wellness behavior.”
Changes in a child’s baseline mood—suddenly becoming more sad or irritable, not eating or sleeping—may be signs of needing to seek a health care provider’s guidance. The same goes for adults who may notice changes in appetite, sleep and mood.
There are a variety of ways to do so. One outlet is a COVID-19 FEMA/SAMHSA grant program called NJ Hope and Healing, offered by The Mental Health Association in New Jersey in collaboration with the New Jersey Department of Human Services’ Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services, Disaster and Terrorism Branch.
This program makes free, virtual support groups available via Zoom. Sessions are organized by shared experiences, such as groups specifically for school nurses, college students, COVID-positive individuals, parents or LGBTQ+. There are also groups that promote mindfulness and coping strategies.
These are often a first step for someone who has never explored mental health resources before. “Participants find the groups helpful because they immediately feel a connection and see that they aren’t the only one going through it,” says Angelini. “They can participate from the comfort of their own home and choose to have the video on or off. Often, participants share coping strategies, whether it’s journaling or setting a timer for a lunch break.”
Front-line workers are also experiencing COVID fatigue, she continues. “They are exhausted mentally and physically, they feel isolated and always ‘on.’ We have to make sure they have an outlet for their wellness that fits into their schedule,” Angelini says. “We have a call line and anonymous text line where they can text for support and even receive motivational texts throughout the week to remind them about wellness.”
There may come a point when a person feels the need to seek additional help, such as therapy. Archibald says she’s getting more requests for therapy than ever. She sees this as a sign that the stigma around mental health is lessening.
“I think the ways in which people view therapy has been changing in recent years. Many younger people seem to speak openly about their mental health and experiences in therapy, which has helped to normalize therapy as a routine part of health care for their generation,” she says. “The ultimate goal for all clients is to attain a sense of wholeness. We want our clients to heal in the ways they need, grow in the ways they want and change in the ways they choose.”
It may be too soon to know the real toll the pandemic will take on our collective mental health. “We can speculate that this collective trauma that we are all experiencing and bearing witness to will impact us in deep, meaningful ways. We know that extended feelings of loneliness greatly contribute to feelings of anxiety and depression. We also know that the feeling of being unsafe greatly impacts our well-being and activates our stress response. These two things alone may mean a long recovery for our mental health,” Archibald says.
However, the conversation has opened, says Angelini. “One in five people will experience a mental health challenge in their life, and we have to let people know that recovery is possible and probable. A lot of people are going through this, and it’s OK to reach out for help.”
For free and confidential emotional support, text “NJHOPE” to 51684.
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Published and copyrighted in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 18, Issue 2 (May 2021).
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