It’s been a tough year, and while 2020 may be in the rearview mirror, the effects of COVID-19 are still with us. It’s fair to say that there has been universal frustration, sadness and isolation, and many have lost loved ones.
So it’s important to recognize that life has changed – and change is tough. May is Mental Health Awareness Month and experts say it’s a good time to evaluate our own stress, sadness, anxiety and levels of isolation.
From youngsters in preschool to seniors in long-term living communities, we have all missed out on significant celebrations we took for granted: school, graduations, parties, sports, clubs, proms, dinners out with friends, and especially family gatherings. These are the moments we cannot recapture, and for many, it has been not only disappointing but potentially devastating emotionally.
In addition, Zoom meetings have replaced face-to-face engagement, many have lost jobs and income, and in-person social interaction is limited.
According to Steve Maglione, executive director of Mental Health America Beaufort/Jasper, “Mental health issues like depression, anxiety and substance use are difficult to identify, screen and treat under any circumstances. The person must seek help, access a screening provider, begin indicated treatment, and follow a plan of care. The onset of COVID-19 has complicated this exponentially.”
Anxiety and depression, loss of income and normal routine, worrying about the virus, and loss of loved ones are among the adverse effects of COVID-19 Maglione listed. “These factors increase stress and lead to or compound mental health issues,” he said. “The pandemic has led to increased risk of substance use which compounds mental health problems.”
He added that it’s important to talk to someone, not isolate, engage and keep to a normal, healthy routine as much as possible.
“Linkage to support during the COVID-19 pandemic is critical for people in recovery from existing mental health and substance abuse issues,” Maglione stated. “As social entities who crave connection with others, isolation causes these issues to spiral. There a plethora of evidence linking social isolation and loneliness to mental health and addiction.”
Maglione and other experts say major concerns include stress, anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, disordered eating and sleeping patterns, and general addictive behaviors.
“We believe it is critically important that people with existing mental health and addiction issues stay connected to help and support as vaccines are rolled out and the pandemic’s end is within sight,” he said.
One way to check in with yourself is to take a mental health screen at MHAscreening.org, he said. It’s a quick, free and private way for someone to assess their mental health.
Typical questions used in mental health screenings at MHA Beaufort/Jasper include: Have you felt consistently sad for the last few months or lost interest in things you enjoy? Have you had occasions when you felt anxious, overwhelmed, afraid or experienced panic-like symptoms? Have you excessively worried about things that are out of your control? Have you felt as though you don’t care about your own well-being? Have you been fearful of leaving your safe places in the last few months? Have you experienced a traumatic event recently?
The answers can help professionals determine how and what kind of help might be warranted.
“Anxiety increases depression and even suicidal ideation,” said Susan Williams, board co-chair of MHA of Beaufort/Jasper. “No concentration, motivation or energy to keep up, and lack of socialization are signs to make a special effort reach out to others for support.”
To help increase our mental wellness, counselors encourage consumers to accept situations in life that we cannot change, actively work to process the mental struggles associated with big changes, manage anger and frustration, recognize when trauma might be affecting our mental health, challenge negative thinking patterns, and make time to take care of ourselves.
Knowing when to turn to friends, family and coworkers when you are struggling with life’s challenges can help improve one’s mental health.
MHA has received a grant to provide free counseling services to low- and moderate-income people in Hilton Head. Call 843-757-3900 for information.
Other resources are professional counselors; NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), 843-636-3100; Alcoholics Anonymous/Al-Anon, 843-785-9630; as well as senior services, the Council on Aging, and support groups.
Edwina Hoyle is a freelance writer in Bluffton.