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The Invisible Mental Health Crisis

Unlike natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes that have a clear, physical beginning and end, a pandemic is invisible. “You can’t see it, you can’t taste it, you just don’t know,” says Charles Benight, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs who specializes in post-disaster recovery. “You look outside, and it seems fine.” 

Without clearly defined boundaries or an end in sight, the direct effects of the pandemic and the adjustments we have had to make in our lives have had a profound impact on our mental health. Anxiety and depression are on the rise, and people are silently struggling. Not only is the pandemic invisible, but it has consequently created an invisible mental health crisis. 

The stressors affecting our mental health

A recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that the pandemic has negatively affected the mental health of 56% of adults. In addition to the pandemic itself, there are a multitude of stressors contributing to this invisible mental health crisis. These stressors are the many changes people have had to endure in a short period of time.

Some people who work from home now, especially if they have children, have been struggling with learning how to home school. Now, not only do they work outside the home (a big change in itself), they are a full-time parent and have to be a full-time teacher. Most people don’t have that experience. They are experiencing feelings of guilt and being overwhelmed.

Another major stressor is around job loss. Many people have lost their jobs or have been furloughed. These job losses lead to remaining workers taking on more responsibilities and feeling more stress, pressure and being overloaded.

For older adults who may live in senior communities, they are stressed because they can’t participate in the activities they used to be involved in because those activities have been cancelled. They are missing their families because visitors are no longer allowed. Older people tend have a harder time dealing with loss and rapid change.

How people are coping

To try to cope with all of this stress, a lot of people are self-medicating or self-soothing with substances. Alcohol consumption has gone up quite substantially. People who used to drink 1–2 drinks a week are now drinking 4–5 drinks in a week or 6–12 in a week. They are doing bigger binges. In fact, since the pandemic began, one study found alcohol sales have increased by 55% and online alcohol sales increased by a whopping 243%. Experts say addiction is a disease of isolation, so for those who may have had trouble with substance abuse before the pandemic, quarantining and social distancing is increasing their risk of relapse.

Self-medicating and self-soothing are being done with other substances as well; not just alcohol. Turning to food and stress eating have been very common during the pandemic, whether it’s chocolate, fries or other junk food. People who are struggling more with depression and anxiety tend to be exercising less, stress eating more, and, therefore, have experienced some weight gain.  

Instead of self-soothing with food or alcohol, there are alternatives you can turn to, like yoga, exercise, meditation or mindfulness-based practices. There are evidence-based studies that have shown that engaging in these practices reduces anxiety and depression. It's beneficial for your mental health to allow your mind to take a break from racing thoughts, or thinking that you have to always be productive or doing things. Meditation and yoga allow you to just be and focus on the present moment. 

My colleague at the Outpatient Psychiatry clinic, Deborah Cihak, recommends taking a walk when you feel the desire to turn to food or alcohol, finding ways to stay connected with friends and family, keeping to a schedule (with bedtime, meals, getting out the same time each day), and paying attention to your sleep hygiene and self-care. She suggests changing your environment with your routine to have clearer lines between work and leisure time/family time. Another colleague of mine in Outpatient Psychiatry, Caroline Cutrone, offers 5 tips for emotional health.

Getting support

A lot of people, when they’re in crisis, may have a hard time verbalizing how they feel; they may not want to talk. If your loved is showing signs of depression or anxiety, validate them emotionally; acknowledge their feelings. Let them know it’s OK not to feel OK. Sometimes just going for a walk, walking the dog, playing a board game, exercising together, eating together or sitting in the room together can be very helpful. 

A reason to see your healthcare provider is if you have incorporated interventions at home but still feel stuck. You’re exercising regularly, you’re eating healthy, you’re meditating, but you still feel like you can't overcome anxiety or negative thoughts. If you feel incapacitated with anxiety or you're not able to get out of bed due to depression, I would advise seeing your primary care provider, psychiatrist or a therapist. Medications can effectively target the neurons responsible for these thoughts, and psychotherapies can help you break free from these judgments you have against yourself. The key to overcoming depression and anxiety lands in the ability to redirect thoughts and be open to engaging in treatments.

It’s important to reach out to a professional if you or someone you know is having thoughts of death or suicide; if anger and irritability are leading to verbal escalations with friends and family; or if alcohol, marijuana or illicit drug use is escalating.

If you or a loved one are experiencing depression or anxiety, Overlake Psychiatry can help. Our providers will personalize your treatment plan to meet your needs. Make an appointment with us today.

Hear Dr. Tsai and Dr. Juan Antonio Avila talk more about how the pandemic is affecting our mental health in the video below.