When the mind hurts

The pandemic has done lasting damage

By ANNEMARIE SCHUETZ
Posted 9/21/21

SULLIVAN COUNTY — The pandemic kills, and even if people survive, there is lasting harm.

The sheer scope of it will take a while to process. Not just because we’re still sorting out …

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When the mind hurts

The pandemic has done lasting damage

Posted

SULLIVAN COUNTY — The pandemic kills, and even if people survive, there is lasting harm.

The sheer scope of it will take a while to process. Not just because we’re still sorting out the rate of excess deaths, but because the impact in some ways has only just begun.

In the U.S., in the last two weeks of August this year, the Household Pulse Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau found that almost 28 percent of adult respondents had experienced symptoms of an anxiety disorder; in 2019, the rate was 8.1 percent. This year, 22.6 percent of adult respondents experienced symptoms of a depressive disorder; in 2019 it was 6.5 percent.

In Sullivan County, the problem is evident and painful.

The situation became clearer as Melissa Stickle, director of community services for the county, gave a presentation on the pandemic and mental health to the Sullivan County Long Term Care Council on September 15.

“From prior research on disasters and epidemics, we mostly know what to expect,” she said. After trauma, large numbers of people report distress.

Eventually, most recover, Stickle said. But for a sizable fraction, that isn’t true.

Some struggle with anxiety disorders. Some with depression. Sometimes, it’s both. In those cases, the problem doesn’t go away, and the repercussions are costly: to the patients themselves, to their families, and to the economy.

Current data aren’t in place yet, but by 2016, the World Health Organization found that mental health problems cost $1 trillion a year, globally, in lost productivity. However, “available cost-benefit research on strategies to address mental health points toward net benefits. For example, a recent WHO-led study estimated that for every U.S. $1 put into scaled-up treatment for common mental disorders, there is a return of U.S. $4 in improved health and productivity.”

It sounds great. Fix mental health and productivity will improve. But right now there’s the converse: poor mental health may be involved in the lower numbers of people returning to work.

What’s causing long-term problems?

“People who experience more severe stressors, such as exposure to the dead or dying, and people with more prolonged disruptions are more likely to experience enduring symptoms,” Stickle said. Other risk factors include insufficient food, financial worries and loneliness.

Intervention will probably be needed to manage the illness.

What helps?

“Receiving economic or social support and using coping strategies,” Stickle said.

In late June, she noted, the CDC found that 11 percent of people surveyed reported having thoughts of suicide.

The distress, Stickle said, is showing up at nearly double the rate of previous years.

It was widely reported that actual deaths by suicide remained steady or dropped during the pandemic. But, as she emphasized, there is a significant reason to worry. The volume of mental health-related and suicide-risk visits to emergency departments dropped early in the pandemic, only to increase once lockdowns were lifted.

And it’s important to keep in mind that although rates are steady or lower right now, it’s when the crisis has passed and suicidal people feel a bit better that “they’re more likely to act on their thoughts,” she said.

Crisis intervention hotlines

National Helpline, 800/662-4357

Crisis text line, text HOME to 741741

Suicide prevention lifeline 800/273-TALK

For the Household Pulse Survey, go to https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/covid19/pulse/mental-health.htm

It’s not just about suicide, of course. The elderly and disabled have been confined to their homes or long-term care facilities, and not all are comfortable enough with technology (or able to use it at all) to stay in touch with family and friends.

The elderly are more likely to become ill with COVID-19, Stickle said, due to weaker immune systems.

“Physical isolation at home among family members can put the elderly and disabled person at serious mental health risk... Elderly people depend on young ones for their daily needs.”

What should be done? Stay in touch with loved ones, Stickle said. “Take some time to talk to older members... and become involved in some of their daily routines.”

And stay aware of mental health problems, both in your family and in yourself, she said. Watch out for the needs of others, because not everyone is able to reach out. “From all that we know, it is clear [the impact of COVID-19 on mental health] will outlive the pandemic itself.”

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