Coronavirus takes a toll on mental, emotional health
While the COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented, it turns out that its impact on mental health is very similar to that of familiar natural disasters like wildfires and floods.
Just as in a natural disaster, the overwhelming scope of the pandemic increases anxiety, depression, intimate-partner violence, child abuse, and chemical dependency, according to behavioral health professionals.
About one-third of the population — in all ages — has been experiencing some depression and anxiety, said Lisa Spitzmiller, a licensed mental health counselor in Winthrop.
Young children need social groups to develop self-esteem and to establish their identity. College students — who landed back home just as they were launching their independence — are struggling with the sudden disconnect, Spitzmiller said.
Elders are having an especially hard time because of the extended isolation, since many feel it isn’t safe to go out, said Kelly Edwards, interim director of Room One, the social-service agency in Twisp.
Data from crisis hotlines and emergency rooms across the state shows a marked increase in these behavioral and mental health issues, said Kira Mauseth, a practicing clinical psychologist and co-lead for the Behavioral Health Strike Team for the state Department of Health (DOH).
Mental health professionals anticipated these effects, since people are isolated and parents and children don’t have the usual outlets for diversion or socializing, Mauseth said.
While the overall instances of intimate-partner violence reported to Room One haven’t increased, violent incidents have been more severe during the pandemic, Room One client advocates Lori Valentine and Lauren Hubbard said. When some people use drugs or alcohol to cope with economic pressures, anxiety and uncertainty, they may lash out in more violent and aggressive ways, they said.
Because economic stress and uncertainty make people feel a loss of control, some people try to exert power and control in other parts of their life, Edwards said. For certain individuals, the need to maintain a sense of identity manifests itself in violence, she said.
People can get support and referrals for more help through Washington Listens. If you or anyone you know is having difficulties managing stress, call 1-833-681-0211 from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Resources and self-help tips are available on http://www.walistens.org.
On the most primal level, when we’re in danger, it’s normal to react defensively or aggressively as a way or protecting ourselves or our families, Spitzmiller said. But this drive can be misdirected and become toxic. “Our brains are not designed to cope with a tremendous amount of uncertainty,” she said.
Some people have been in volatile relationships for a long time, but they have no safe, stable place to go in the valley, and the stay-home order exacerbated the situation, Edwards said. Moreover, affordable housing is now in shorter supply as people from other areas seek refuge in the valley. That leaves people fleeing an abusive situation in motels or sleeping outside, she said.
Across the state, reports of domestic violence went up 15% this April and May, compared with last year, and 8% in the first half of 2020, Mauseth said. But it’s hard to get the complete picture, since those numbers come from only one-fourth of state law-enforcement agencies, she said.
Economic pressure appears to be the biggest stressor, Hubbard said. As the pandemic wears on, people are growing increasingly anxious about finances. With a moratorium on evictions due to expire in October, worries about housing — in the winter — are intensifying, Edwards said.
Without work, many people have no sense of purpose and they don’t have the responsibility of getting up to go to work, Valentine said. People who had a healthy rhythm — who joined friends after work for a drink, for example — are now drinking at home and feeling an increased sense of isolation and entrapment, Edwards said.
A perception that swimming holes, parks and trailheads are crowded is creating anxiety even about outdoor activities, which have been highlighted as a safe option, Edwards said.
Decisions about school and child care add to people’s stress. “There are all the layers of judgment about choice,” Edwards said. “People wonder, ‘Am I placing my child at risk by choosing child care?’ People are dealing with judgment and guilt, even though there’s really no right thing to do.”
“There’s a tremendous amount of uncertainty about finances, education and housing,” Spitzmiller said. “People are getting really scared.”
Making things even worse is the fact that people don’t have access to the social and community support they’re used to giving and receiving, Spitzmiller said. With restrictions on gatherings, many people feel depressed and disappointed that they have to forego family reunions and vacations. “We’re isolated at the very moment when we need soothing from others,” she said.
These responses are a natural reaction to a disaster. When people feel threatened, the response comes from the emotional part of the brain, not the area that handles logical reasoning and planning, DOH’s Mauseth said. “No one’s immune. This is how the human brain processes stress,” she said.
Mauseth counsels people to be aware of how their emotions affect their functioning and to know when to seek professional help.
Before the pandemic, about 650,000 Washingtonians were receiving treatment for behavioral health needs. Another 700,000 have mental health concerns but weren’t receiving services, according to the DOH report. Reasons people don’t seek treatment are complicated and varied, but financial and technological access are big factors.
Like so many things in the pandemic, counseling has gone online. Telehealth takes some adjustment but, overall, it’s going quite well with her clients, Spitzmiller said.
But many people have found remote counseling sessions less effective than seeing a therapist in person. “There’s the online-fatigue factor. The weekly Zoom call is less nurturing and therapeutic,” Room One’s Hubbard said. And for people who aren’t tech-savvy, learning the technology brings its own source of stress.
Telehealth doesn’t work well with young children, where therapy typically involves art or play, Spitzmiller said. Some therapists are less able to see clients — even remotely — because they’re juggling child care and privacy issues, Hubbard said.
But remote appointments bring some advantages, allowing people to see a therapist who’s not in the immediate area, Spitzmiller said.
It’s important to validate what people are experiencing. This pandemic is universal, and knowing that helps people realize they’re not the only ones feeling this way, Spitzmiller said.
It can be comforting to have a sense of normalcy through structure and daily rituals, Spitzmiller said. She advises people to moderate their intake of news and other sources of tension. “If all news is scary, it will amp up our anxiety,” she said. Spitzmiller recommends watching comedy, reading uplifting or escapist novels, and gardening or exercising.
It’s vital to connect with significant people in our lives, Spitzmiller said. Connecting over the phone or for a walk can be a huge source of comfort.
As social beings, we need to feel seen, heard and validated by others. It helps people to know that feeling anxious and short-tempered is a natural reaction, Spitzmiller said. “The human brain is not designed to live 6 feet apart,” she said.
One of the most helpful things is just being there to listen to people who are feeling lonely and isolated, Hubbard said. “We’re all in this together,” she said.