When COVID-19 first infiltrated our lives in the spring of 2020, no one had any idea of the emotional toll its presence would take on society. As case numbers surge and fall and information circulates as rapidly as the virus itself, people’s patience has worn thin, and their anxiety has hit record highs. As a result, mental health professionals around the country have seen increased demand for psychological services over the course of the last year.
“Lives have changed in terms of uncertainty,” says Dr. Lorie Walter, the medical director of Mindful Transitions, an Adult Partial Hospital Program, and the clinical director of outpatient services at Lindner Center of HOPE. “There is frustration over differing opinions since some issues have become politicized, so people don’t know what to believe. Other people are angry about having to follow certain rules they don’t agree with, so I find myself talking to patients about how to manage their anger.”
This virus has collectively stretched across all ages, races, and demographics, but while everyone is experiencing it, how each person handles and tolerates it is different.
Dr. Tracy Cummings is the associate chief medical officer for clinical excellence and chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at Lindner Center of HOPE. She specializes in the assessment and treatment of children and has seen an uptick in children being evaluated in emergency rooms with concerns of anxiety, depression, self-harm, eating disorders and substance use.
“If you look up statistics, across the board, those numbers were higher in 2020 as compared to years before,” says Cummings.
Walter suspects that a big part of the anxiety is due to the upheaval in our daily routines.
“Adults have children at home because schooling routines have changed. Work routines have changed as well, and we’ve all had to figure out how to adapt,” says Walter. “The problem is, as soon as they do, some other change occurs.”
To compound matters, there are layers of stress. For instance, some may worry about elderly parents’ health and safety as rules and regulations change. Walter has also seen people with medical problems who are scared of catching COVID-19, so they have been avoiding general healthcare appointments for the past 18 months. Some physical health concerns may have slipped through the cracks. For teens, social development is critical at this stage in their life; COVID-19 created a dramatic shift as the education system changed as did the ability to socialize.
“That’s a lot all at once,” says Cummings. The uncertainty of not knowing how long it may stay like this is hard. “Even if teens don’t give the impression that they need rules, those boundaries actually help them function really well because when they expect what’s coming next, they can master what’s coming next.”
Though we would like to fix whatever ails us immediately, mental health is multi-faceted. Treatments have to be multi-faceted as well. It all starts, however, with recognizing that you need help.
As adults, teens and children continue to navigate the murky waters of COVID-19, it’s important for individuals, families, teachers and employers to recognize the signs and symptoms of those who could benefit from mental health intervention. If someone is suddenly sleeping or eating too much or too little, that’s concerning. If a person complains of an upset stomach, headaches, or insomnia; is not keeping up with their daily hygiene; or begins withdrawing from activities they typically enjoy, it’s wise to seek treatment. In addition, if someone is suddenly unable to function at work, school or home, those are clear indications that they are struggling. In short, if you witness impairment in a person’s daily life, it’s wise to initiate a conversation that addresses mental health needs.
“When we see these changes in how someone is functioning, we can get them to a professional who can identify the treatment strategy to target that diagnosis and then get them on their way to recovery,” Cummings says.
Walter suggests taking note of behavior changes, especially with regard to impulsivity that was not there before — perhaps risk-taking behaviors, drug or alcohol abuse, or aggressive behavior where someone is angry and lashing out.
“A change in a person’s interaction style that is not normally their temperament is a red flag,” Walter says.
Steps toward intervention include connecting the person to a provider, whether that be a primary care physician or a more specific mental health professional. The individual may require therapy, medication management, or some combination of the two. Some may benefit from an outpatient day program, while others require more intense inpatient care.
If you’re unsure of where to begin in your hunt for help, Walter suggests checking your insurance plan to see who is covered in your area as well as seeing if your company has an employee assistance program. Plus, you can always ask your friends for referrals.
“If I’m going to get my car fixed, I’m going to ask for names of good mechanics from people I know,” Walter says. “The same holds true when finding good therapists or psychiatrists.”
It’s wise to proactively care for your mental health on a regular basis before the road gets too rocky. Professionals suggest seeking out resources from the Internet that can offer a litmus test on mental health.
“There are some simple things you can do any time of day,” says Walter, who recommends downloading free apps that offer coping skills and stress reduction such as Calm, Breathr, and Headspace. “It’s a good idea to take a mental break in the middle of the day to do some of those activities. And if you do them before bed, you can have a clearer mind to get to sleep.”
Making good choices about your overall health — including diet, exercise and sleep — helps ensure optimal health, which, in turn, reduces stress, anxiety and depression.
“If I’m going to get my car fixed, I’m going to ask for names of good mechanics from people I know,” says Walter. “The same holds true when finding good therapists or psychiatrists.”
Sadly, due to the stigma surrounding mental health issues, it’s still common for people to separate mental health from overall health. The truth of the matter is that the two are intermingled.
“Think about how you would treat your dog. You’re going to take your dog for walks, give him a bath and a haircut, feed him healthy food, and you wouldn’t think of not doing those things,” Walter says. “Unfortunately, we don’t think about taking care of ourselves like that.”
Often that lack of self-care is chalked up to busy schedules and ingrained habits. For instance, Walter recently got an Apple watch and was shocked when it instructed her to breathe. But just one minute of concentrated breathing can increase creativity and improve relaxation. The body also benefits from standing and walking around, even for a short time. After sitting at a desk for a prolonged period, you might notice that you feel stiff or sore when you first rise. That’s why standing and stretching breaks are important.
“It’s really having the awareness and the reminder to build those simple self-care steps into your day,” Walter says.
Lindner Center of HOPE is located at 4075 Old Western Row Road, Mason, Ohio 45040. For more information, visit
lindnercenterofhope.org or call 513-536-4673.