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RTDNAC 2020: Coronavirus and Mental Health

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While social distancing and quarantine are necessary to curb COVID-19 case surges -- isolation from others is causing loneliness and feelings of disconnection.

As Covid-19 spreads, scientists and healthcare providers are worried about more than the physical health of Americans. Experts warn that people need to take care of themselves mentally, as well -- now more than ever. 

Social isolation, a troubled economy, and an uncertain future make for more than abandoned airports and empty grocery shelves. Fear, anxiety, stress, and loneliness are all side effects of the pandemic and the social distancing measures that come with it. 


But not all hope is lost, according to Dr. Antonio E. Puente, Professor of Psychology at UNCW. He says that even with social distancing, a lot of the things we need emotionally can still be incorporated into our daily routine -- like exercise, structure, and even human connection:


“This is time to increase your communication with others, whether it's through social media, or even just getting on the telephone and calling someone that you haven't gotten around to calling because you've been too busy.”


Puente’s biggest word of advice? Don’t allow your feelings of uncertainty to fuel panic, anger, and blame -- and work to maintain a more optimistic outlook:


“What is it that we can learn from all of this? Might we end up saying we came together, we fought together and we're better people as a consequence? More connected, maybe less selfish -- will this be a wakeup call to all of us?”




The COVID-19 pandemic is impacting every aspect of our lives -- and mental health is no exception. According to a national survey across ten states, therapists are reporting increases in a variety of mental health issues as the pandemic drags on.


The survey of 85 clinicians found that roughly a third of therapists are seeing rates of anxiety and stress increase among adults. A third also report an increase in depression, and a majority say their patients are having more sleep problems.


So, what’s going on? The problem is that while social distancing and quarantine are necessary to curb COVID-19 case surges -- isolation from others is causing loneliness and feelings of disconnection. And the uncertainty of when the pandemic will end isn’t helping. 


“Usually we know when our stressors are going to be over. Like I'll know I'll feel fine after the exam, or I know I'll feel fine after the wedding. And so this idea that we don't have an idea of when this could be over, can really impact people in terms of the stressors they're experiencing.”


That’s Dr. Bryanna Campbell. She’s a licensed psychologist at Southeast Psych in Charlotte -- one of the facilities that participated in the survey. Campbell points out that while most people are being impacted by quarantine in some form, the severity of those impacts is worse for some than others. Those who live alone, for example or those without access to a smartphone or laptop could be especially vulnerable to mental health obstacles.


Others who may be at risk are people who have struggled with mental illness prior to the pandemic. Bronte Cook is a college student in upstate New York, who is currently back home in the midwest. For her, quarantine has made it difficult to deal with an eating disorder.


“It's really hard right now, because everything that they tell you to do in terms of recovering from an eating disorder or trying to work through one, is don't isolate yourself. Do things that you enjoy doing. Something that has worked for me in the past is to distract myself -- like if I'm busy and if I'm going about my life there's not as much time to think about food and everything that comes with it.”


Cook says it’s been particularly challenging being back home, surrounded by old triggers she associates with her disorder. To cope, she keeps herself occupied through painting and other forms of art. She’s also trying to find inspiration in looking at this new way of life as a time for mindfulness and learning.


Dr. Megan Connell, also a practicing psychologist at Southeast Psych, shares a similar perspective:


“Some companies are finding that their employees are just as if not more productive working from home and a lot of people are finding the joy of spending more time with their family. Other people are realizing how reliant they are on social connection, how important it is to be around other people. And so as we learn these things, we can learn to adapt and tailor our lives.”


A major adaptation in the healthcare field throughout the pandemic is the transition to teletherapy services. Dr. Campbell says this new technology is helping doctors reach more patients more frequently. And she encourages anyone facing difficulty right now to consider it. 


“Utilizing whatever supports you may have around you and being able to verbalize that you need help is something that's very important. So maybe you may not have the resources yourself, but when you reach out to and connect with people around you in whatever ways you can, they may be able to connect you with some resources.” 


For Bronte Cook, simply connecting with someone who’s in the same boat makes a difference:


“I have a friend from high school who lives near me here in Minnesota, and I talked to her about just about what I'm going through, and she assured me like, ‘you're not crazy. This is normal.’ And she sent me a bunch of resources she found.”


Dr. Connell’s advice for those who know someone struggling right now is to listen to and be there for them. And for those struggling themselves -- self-compassion is key.


“A lot of us have this fear that we're not doing enough. That we're not teaching our kids enough at school, that we're not studying enough, that we're not working hard enough. What we're doing right now is surviving a crisis, and we're doing our best.” 




NCDHHS Wellness Hotline Resources:

  • Hope4NC Helpline (1-855-587-3463) - Additional mental health and resilience support that helps NC residents cope and build resilience.
  • Hope4Healers Helpline (919-226-2002) - A new initiative in partnership with the NC Psychological Foundation. Provides mental health and resilience support for health care professionals, emergency medical specialists, first responders, other staff who work in health care settings and their families.
  • Optum (866-342-6892) - Toll-free 24-hour Emotional Support Help Line for people who may be experiencing anxiety or stress.
  • National Disaster Distress Helpline (1-800-985-5990) - Crisis counseling and emotional support 24 hours a day.
  • Hopeline (919-231-4525) or (1-877-235-4525) - Support available 24 hours a day.
  • NC Alcohol and Drug Council (1-800-688-4232) or text (919-908-3196) - If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol or drug addiction, support is available 24 hours a day via the hotline.
  • National Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-TALK) - Offers free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources, and best practices for professionals.
  • National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233) - Visit NC's Council for Women & Youth Involvement for a list of domestic violence and sexual assault service providers in your county. Individuals can also call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at (1-800-656-4673).

Online Wellness Resources:


Hannah is WHQR's All Things Considered host, and also reports on science, the environment, and climate change. She enjoys loud music, documentaries, and stargazing; and is the proud mother of three cats, a dog, and many, many houseplants. Contact her via email at hbreisinger@whqr.org, or on Twitter @hbreisinger.