COVID-19 and the Toll on Mental Health

COVID-19 is causing an uptick of depression and anxiety in people all over the world. Stemming from isolation, fear and hopelessness, the rise in mental health disorders is spread across people of all ages, backgrounds, genders and social status, not discriminating against any one group.

While we will likely not see the full impact for many months, Winthrop, like every community in the Commonwealth, is seeing a rise in mental health issues due to the pandemic.

At the local level, Winthrop experts have seen a surge in requests and referrals from patients seeking mental health services. Most of these requests have come from patients seeking this type of assistance for the very first time in their lives. The North Suffolk Mental Health Association, which has been supporting Winthrop during the pandemic, has weighed in on their findings.

According to Dr. Manjola Ujkaj Van Alphen, MD, PhD, MBA, Chief Medical Officer, North Suffolk Mental Health Association (NSMHA), the tangible effect of the pandemic inmental health in our local community is reflective of the larger psychosocial consequences at the national and global level. A recent national US survey showed that 90 percent of the survey respondents reported experiencing some degree of emotional distress during this pandemic.

“The main contributors to these findings are related to losses in multiple main areas of life,” said Van Alphen. “These include but are not limited to the limitations on everyday life activities imposed by the social and physical isolation (mass-home confinement that is new to the American society); fears related to personal safety and well-being and those of loved ones; job loss and financial insecurity; work and school closures; inadequate and/or insufficient medical resources to counter COVID-19.”

Van Alphen said that these consequences may translate into a range of emotional reactions such as depression, anxiety or other psychiatric conditions; unhealthy behaviors, such as excessive substance use, sedentary lifestyle and unhealthy eating; and noncompliance with public health directives (such as home confinement and vaccination) in people who contract the disease and in the general population. Perhaps, the most dreaded mental health consequence is the increase in suicidal ideation and suicide during the pandemic.

“Some groups have been more vulnerable than others to the psychosocial and economical effects of pandemics. Those at increased risk for adverse psychosocial outcomes in particular are people who contracted the disease and those at heightened risk for it (including the elderly, people with compromised immune function, and those living or receiving care in congregate settings); people with preexisting medical, psychiatric, or substance use problems; and front-line healthcare providers.”

The impact of the pandemic extends beyond mental health issues and has also caused a rise in substance abuse in those who have preexisting substance use disorders.

“People with preexisting substance use disorders have had an increase in their substance abuse as well as opioid overdose, partly related to the decrease of services available during the pandemic, both in Massachusetts and across the U.S. Racial and ethnic minorities, and women with children under the age of 18, have reported higher levels of emotional distress. Adults younger than 50, although overall less vulnerable to COVID-19, were much more likely to report emotional impact of the pandemic compared to older adults likely related to the above everyday life limitations and socioeconomic consequences imposed by the pandemic and its management.”

Lyndsay Brattan, MINDeaze Winthrop Grant Manager, believes that there has been an increase in general anxiety among all populations in the community, both in Winthrop and around the state.

“Not only have students had to adapt to entirely new ways of learning, but they have been stripped of daily in-person interaction with their classmates and friends, leading many to isolate. Parents have had to add homeschool educators to their role, on top of having to manage the many other stressors that are a direct cause of this pandemic. Our role at North Suffolk has, and will continue to be, offering support and guidance to ease the burdens COVID has caused.”

One of the main contributors witnessed by NSMHA professionals, is the social isolation that students feel as they navigate remote learning away from their peers.

“​Working with elementary-age youth in the school system, students have expressed their frustration of not being able to see and play with their friends and having to spend six to eight hours a day looking at a screen completing their schoolwork, leading to increased frustration, fatigue, depression, and other maladaptive behaviors,” said Alicia Musso, LCSW, MINDEaze School Navigator.

Since the start of COVID, resident and Clinical Nursing Director for Commonwealth Clinical Services, Jeanne Hurley, has had several parents reach out to her regarding their emotionally withdrawn children.

“COVID-19 has impacted the nation’s mental health and we are already beginning to see the negative effects,” said Hurley who is also an Adult-Gerontology Nurse Practitioner at Dr. Pramodchandra C. Shah, MD Medical Group. “Winthrop children have identified they are having an overwhelming negative mental impact to remote learning and being out of school.”

People who have dealt with mental health issues prior to COVID-19 can navigate the new norm in different ways. For some, anxiety and depression is exacerbated making it challenging to focus and adapt. Others with mental health history, are utilizing the tools that they’ve learned over the years. High School Senior, Sofia Vitale, shared her ideas on the topic.

“I have faced mental health concerns way before COVID. I would not call them struggles, rather I would say they are a part of my life and have made me want to grow and become an overall better feeling person. For those who are experiencing these struggles for the first time, they may not know how to cope. It is hard for me to figure out this time we are living in and how to make things feel a little more normal. I imagine it is much harder for others who have not really come to face mental health challenges before. It is new and very tough at the beginning. I have done therapy for many years and I am not ashamed of that. I am someone who recommends therapy and thinks it is very normal to have stress and feel down. It is important to speak about what you may be feeling because it is normal. It is important to do things that will make you feel better during this time such as taking walks, getting outside and seeing friends from a distance.”

CASA Youth Program Coordinator, Marc Flaherty works directly with high school students and he has witnessed a rollercoaster of emotions among his staff.

“These kids are dealing with so many things they didn’t know how to deal with before the pandemic. On one hand it’s really impressive that they are able to do this, but the toll it’s taken on them is concerning.”

The average age of Flaherty’s staff members are 16 and 17 years old. The small group meets in person on Mondays, Thursdays, and Fridays for two hours. The meetings have shifted to a focus on mental health and he is teaching them tools for mediation and mindfulness. On a mission to bring mental health to the forefront, the group has started a podcast called “The CASA Cast,” which will feature essential workers, social workers and adjustment counselors who will discuss coping mechanisms and other hot topics.

“One thing that I noticed, is that the kids get excited about pouring their effort into the podcast. When kids are in school, they are able put effort into something. This is not as easy to do on a screen, but the podcast is giving them something to focus on.”

For more information on CASA’s youth program, please contact:

[email protected]

On the other end of the spectrum, older residents are suffering from a combination of boredom, isolation and depression. Senior Center Director, Kathy Dixon has found that the general consensus of seniors in the community is that they are bored now that their daily activities are canceled.

“We are a very active community with lots of programs for most seniors to keep busy in day to day life. Because of the length of isolation right now, depression is felt by many. In speaking with the other directors around the state, depression is prevalent in the more rural areas.”

Between pre-existing anxiety and depression, the rise in evictions, job losses, and a sense of uncertainty across the board, communities everywhere are opening up about the reality of mental health and its importance as a society.

NSMHA has been working throughout to meet the need for services in Winthrop, Revere and Chelsea, providing supports for both adults and children. The number for Central Intake is 617-934-7156.

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