People are continuing to cope with COVID-19 in one way or another.
“A lot of us in our community have experienced trauma and tragedy in having lost family and loved ones to COVID-19,” said JT Carrillo, a mental health therapist, and CEO of Rio Grande Counseling & Guidance Services in Albuquerque. “It is very sad, and we must honor their memories and allow ourselves to grieve.”
The impact of those losses, and the pandemic in general, has taken a toll on many people, especially their mental health.
“We don’t go through things like a pandemic where we isolate and (deal with) changes for greater than 2 years and come out of the other side and feel like we’ve won,” said Dr. Shannon Stromberg, Presbyterian Medical Group medical director of behavioral health and chief of psychiatry. “That’s not what happened.”
The levels of stress and fear were already high at the beginning of the pandemic, but “we didn’t know how long it would last,” Stromberg said.
The fear, stress and sense of isolation that came as a result of guidelines like social distancing “has led to what we’re seeing now, which is an across-the-board increase in requests for psychiatric care for all mental illnesses and age groups.”
For the first time in 18 years, Rio Grande Counseling & Guidance Services started a waitlist for new clients.
While the request for services has gone up, there is an increasing shortage of licensed mental health therapists in the community, “so it is an overwhelming challenge to accommodate new patients who have to wait three to six weeks, or longer, for an appointment,” Carrillo said.
‘A sense of confusion’
Among the issues some people are facing are anxiety and depression.
In December 2021, more than 8 in 10 psychologists (84 percent) who treat anxiety disorders reported seeing an increased demand for anxiety treatment since the start of the pandemic, compared to 74 percent in 2020. Requests for treatment of depression is also up, with 72 percent of psychologists who treat depressive disorders saying they have seen an increase, compared with 60 percent in 2020, according to the American Psychological Association.
There are a variety of factors that contribute to anxiety and depression, including physical health, family dynamics, life changes, and life experiences.
“For many of our clients, they have experienced loss of employment and income, deaths of family members and friends, increases in alcohol and drug use, and social isolation (especially in the beginning of the pandemic),” Carrillo said.
Over the last two years, people have been living with “a sense of confusion and unpredictability” because of how quickly COVID has changed the world, he said.
This can be a very difficult thing to live with on a daily basis, and can contribute greatly to feelings of depression and anxiety, Carrillo said.
Stromberg is concerned that people’s mental health issues that have resulted from or worsened due to COVID-19 are not likely to go away anytime soon.
“This will continue for the rest of my career,” he said. “There (was) already a need for mental health care. There are a lot of people who are suffering.
“This just exasperates it.”
‘Don’t give up’
Despite the uncertainty, there are things people can do to help get through the tough times.
“We must continue to have hope and try to take care of ourselves,” Carrillo said.
Below are some recommendations:
- Schedule an appointment for mental health services: If people don’t feel like they can deal with whatever issues they are facing alone anymore, it’s imperative they “get help before it’s too late,” Stromberg said.
- Establish a daily and steady routine.
- Reach out to others as much as possible, even just to say hello.
- Consider adopting a pet.
- Stay hydrated and eat healthy.
- Try to do at least one fun activity each day.
- Be gentle and understanding of one’s self: “This is a different world,” Carrillo said. “Things can be confusing and scary, but remember that you are not alone.”
- For those with children, remember they may not be able to verbalize things very well: “They may express feelings through their actions or how they play,” he said. “Things can be confusing and scary for them as well, so try to be gentle and give them loving attention and a steady routine.”
- Join a church and/or a community support group.
- Call the National Suicide Lifeline (1-800-273-8255), if necessary.
- Call 911 or visit the nearest emergency room if anyone wants to hurt themselves or others.
“History teaches us that we do overcome our hardships, but we can only accomplish that if we keep trying and if we are patient,” Carillo said. “Don’t give up. The solution is right ahead of us.”