When we hear about Covid, most of us think about the severity of physical symptoms that the virus has caused. What we might not think about as much are the countless invisible emotional symptoms that have also accompanied this crisis. The extraordinary toll that Covid-19 has taken on mental health has created its own separate pandemic of sorts. We spoke with area experts in the field to gain a better understanding of the depth of the struggles that might be harder to spot.
“This particular crisis hit so many triggers for people: social isolation, fear of illness and death, economic worries, parenting concerns,” explains Dr. Danielle Thau, Psy.D, licensed clinical psychologist, specialist with Medical Crisis Therapy in Stamford. “The number of ways that Covid has had an impact helps to explain why so many people are struggling.”
And indeed it does. Experts agree that the need for mental health services has increased dramatically over the past 20 months. Emergency rooms across the state have seen record numbers of patients in emotional distress, and the number of opioid overdoses in the U.S. hit an all-time high this year at over 96,000.
“Opioid overdose numbers can be one of the best indicators of mental health,” says Dr. Charles Herrick, chair of psychiatry at Nuvance Health. “People are trying to medicate away the terrible distress that they have experienced and Covid has magnified the social consequences of this disease. Our brains are constructed biologically to be socially connected.”
One of the biggest challenges that healthcare providers have faced with Covid is the very real and viable fear of the unknown. Virtually every aspect of our lives has been disrupted and everyone’s struggles are personal and unique. For some, grief and loss have been unbearable. For others, the stress of trying to maintain jobs/working from home while caring for their children and homeschooling wreaked havoc on their emotional health.
“The parents and caretakers of young children who could not be in school and needed constant supervision also struggled,” says Bill Blank, Psy.D, high school psychologist at the Leffell School in Hartsdale, NY, and in private practice at The Riverwalk Group in Stamford. “One professional told me, ‘It has been so difficult being a professional in a Zoom meeting and taking care of a five-year-old at the same time. I often feel overwhelmed and I know that I am not doing anything to the best of my ability. I feel like a failure at my job and as a parent.’”
A New Level of Anxiety
Social isolation and lack of connection grew fears among those of all ages, but particularly hard hit were older adults living alone and teenagers who rely so heavily on feedback from their peers. Young children faced unprecedented fears and their parents have been critically challenged by trying to help dispel their worries while also struggling with concerns of their own. Not being in school or able to have normal social experiences caused a tremendous amount of new and worsening anxiety.
“For many practitioners it has become more difficult to challenge anxieties felt by their patients in the ways that they may have in the past,” explains Lauren Riordan, Ph.D. licensed clinical psychologist and director at The Waverly Group. “The fear can be quite real, so rather than dispel those fears, it may be a matter of accepting them and finding a way to live with them so that it doesn’t completely undo the person.”
Finding stability and balance is key and experts agree that in order to achieve that, healthy sleep patterns are necessary.
“In daily routines increased anxiety, reduced exercise and increased alcohol consumption can all negatively influence sleep patterns,” says Dr. Thau. “When sleep is disrupted it can cause increases in anxiety and depression and generally diminished coping resources; it can become a vicious cycle. Helping people to get back on track with healthy sleep patterns is important across all age groups right now.”
When it comes to mental wellness, healthcare workers in particular have been challenged in ways that they never could have imagined. At the peak of the pandemic, ICU doctors and nurses could often be found sitting next to dying patients because their loved ones weren’t allowed into the hospital.
“I worry about the mental health of my peers and our caregivers; I hope people in the community keep that in mind,” says Amir Garakani, MD, psychiatrist and medical director of the Addiction Recovery Center at Greenwich Hospital. “The nurse treating you might not have taken a vacation since the beginning of the pandemic. There is an alarming number of healthcare providers suffering from PTSD, depression and suicides.”
While the strain on the system is substantial, a common message among experts is that there is a great deal of help available. Seeking support, taking care of ourselves, assisting others and being kind are more important than ever.
The introduction of telepsych has allowed providers to drastically expand their reach for those seeking both individual and group treatment. And, while for some, particularly younger children, remote therapy isn’t always as effective, for others it has been a game changer for the better.
“It has allowed us to maintain a continuity in care that we couldn’t before,” says Michael Groat, chief clinical officer at Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan. “In many cases, we’ve been able to continue our work after discharge. Patients have appreciated being able to stay connected through teletherapy.”
The convenience of being able to talk to a doctor remotely has not only allowed providers to see more patients, it has given patients more access to help by removing physical proximity from the equation.
KNOW THE SIGNS AND WHEN TO SEEK HELP
Sudden changes in behavior are key when identifying signs of mental-health needs in children, tweens and teens. Here, some signs of what to look for:
• Poor grades
• Missing assignments for school
• Teacher reporting attention issues at school
• Difficulty concentrating
• School avoidance
• New or extreme fixations on scary topics
• Loss of interest in extracurricular activities and/or playdates
• Clinginess with parents and/or caregivers
• Spending more time in their rooms rather than in common spaces at home
• Sleep issues
• Eating issues
• Somatic complaints
• Substance use
• Preoccupation with social media
• Excessive TV watching or gaming
• Eating issues
• Sleep issues
HOW TO FIND HELP
Knowing where to go for help is key. Here’s where to start:
* Consult your insurance plan’s mental-health provider directory
* Ask someone you trust for a recommendation
* Talk to your doctor about your struggles, just like you would about physical symptoms
* Use an online database search such as The American Psychological Association at apa.org or The American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists at aamft.org
Visit the CDC’s mental health page for numerous links for support and resources cdc.gov/mentalhealth/