The uncertainty, isolation and social distancing people experienced during the last two months due to coronavirus concerns could leave long-lasting scars on the nation’s mental health, experts warn.
“Even when things get back to normal, it will be hard for people to trust a new normal. The uncertainty of ‘Will this happen again?’ ‘Will another layoff happen?’ ‘Will the schools shut down?’ is scary. All of a sudden, the things we felt were stable we find out are not. This will leave a scar behind,” said Susan Claborn, director of the Mental Health Association in Morgan County.
As the country loosens restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19, professionals worry about the psychological damage caused by the pandemic.
Officials also are worried about the potential of a mental health crisis as more reports of depression, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide surface.
“The COVID-19 virus is not only attacking our physical health, it is also increasing psychological suffering: grief at the loss of loved ones, shock at the loss of jobs, isolation and restrictions on movement, difficult family dynamics, uncertainty and fear for the future,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a video message on May 13.
Experts expect the psychological effects of the coronavirus to be widespread — impacting both individuals diagnosed with a mental illness and those undiagnosed.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 45% of adults in the United States said the new coronavirus impacted their mental health through increased worry and stress. The Census Bureau found more than one-third of Americans displayed clinical signs of anxiety or depression, and a Pew Research Center study reported that number jumped to 55% for individuals facing financial difficulties.
“We are all experiencing, to some level, mental health disruption because of this,” said Claborn. “It would be hard to find somebody right now that doesn’t say they feel unsettled, antsy, unfocused and unmotivated.”
The Mental Health Association in Morgan County witnessed that impact firsthand as the number of calls fielded by the Decatur-based nonprofit organization increased.
“We have had a lot more phone calls. For the first month, everybody was kind of accepting what was happening. After we hit that month mark, though, that’s where it seemed like it became harder. People realized this was going to be long term and wasn’t going to end immediately,” Claborn said.
To address those feelings, Athens State University used the school’s mascot, Hebrew the Bear, to reach out to students via text and check on their well-being. The responses surprised counselor Lisa Philippart.
“Students actually shared how they were doing. I read through the messages and some required an immediate response,” said Philippart, who, through a partnership between the university and the Mental Health Center of North Central Alabama, provides counseling for students.
Mental health professionals fear the isolation, worry and uncertainty connected to the coronavirus will spur an increase of alcohol and drug abuse and thoughts of suicide.
“We have heard there has been a rise in suicide, both in terms of ideation — people having suicidal thoughts — and in taking it the next step and making a plan,” Philippart said. “That is very concerning. In the mental health field, we are trying to prepare ourselves for what is to come.”
Recognizing the potential demand for services, the federal government allotted $425 million of the CARES Act to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
“Mental health professionals have been throwing that flag up saying, ‘Hey, this isn’t going to end for us,’ ” Claborn said. “We use the number 1 in 5 because in normal times, 1 in 5 people will experience mental illness. That number will increase.”
In the wake of past traumas, the number of individuals who experienced mental health issues rose to seven out of 10, reports showed.
To deal with the psychological struggle, therapists encouraged individuals to set a daily schedule and maintain a routine, get exercise, eat healthy, practice relaxation techniques such as meditation and yoga, and continue hobbies.
“Do fun things. Do your activities. Now is the time you can do that. For me, personally, I always wanted to watch ‘Outlander.’ That’s been my guilty pleasure. Anything that you can enjoy, do it,” Philippart said.
“Most of all, be kind to yourself. Accept that we are going through a difficult period and we are all experiencing an increase in anxiety. You are not alone.”
If you see someone struggling, reach out to them, ask questions and listen, Philippart said.
Crisis Services of North Alabama operates a HELPline, 256-716-1000, 24 hours a day and offers text responses, 256-722-8219, from 4 to 11:30 p.m.
Individuals can also call the Mental Health Association, 256-353-1160.
The Mental Health Association also continues to offer in-person support groups for depression and a medication assistance program for individuals who are struggling financially.
Described by Claborn as “gap coverage,” the program helps cover the cost of mental health medication for a month or two. For information, go to mhainmc.net.