Your Health: COVID and its impact on mental health

With COVID-19 cases still at high levels and the prospect of remote learning continuing into the near future, local counselor Carron Montgomery has some tips on how to cope this winter. File photo credit Getty Images.

Since the COVID pandemic began, we have been hearing the statistics regarding cases and deaths. However, what is not reflected in those statistics is the number of people who are suffering mental health issues brought on by the pandemic.

There’s no question that COVID has prompted lifestyle changes for most of us. Social distancing, business and school closures and delayed health care appointments have caused mental, physical and economic stress for many people.

Mary Friesen, LSCSW, is the social worker team lead for the outpatient physicians groups at AdventHealth Shawnee Mission. Friesen has seen more patients in their offices with depression and anxiety since summer ended.

“The summer months offered a much needed break from within the four walls of our homes,” said Friesen. “We were able to get creative with driveway parties or meet in parks or other outdoor spaces. Now that the seasons are changing, there is less to do outside and routines are changing again. We are also seeing more anxiety about the winter months in relation to viral spread and concerns of holiday travel or gatherings.”

Although the pandemic has affected all of us, especially older adults living alone and parents who are working remotely while trying to support their children’s education, Friesen believes children and teens have been most greatly impacted. School closures have resulted in limited interaction with peers and less access to services such as meal programs and activities like sports and theatre.

“While younger children are being integrated back into the classroom, older students have continued learning from home,” said Friesen. “Technology has been helpful, but there is no electronic substitution for physical touch or face-to-face interaction.”

If you are looking to assist a friend or family member who is struggling with mental health, it’s important to remember you need to take care of yourself before you can successfully help others.

“It’s the oxygen mask analogy,” said Friesen. “You cannot help the person next to you if you stop breathing first. Eat, sleep and participate in some form of activity. When any of those things are off, we are more vulnerable to our emotions.”

Knowing what to say to someone who is depressed can be difficult. You should be in the proper state of mind to effectively begin the conversation. Using phrases like “snap out of it”, “things could be worse” or “it’s all in your head” can make the person ashamed of their feelings. It’s better to ask open-ended questions like “How can I be helpful?”.

Words are powerful so be sure to show genuine compassion and concern. If you suspect someone is considering suicide, be direct and ask if they have thought about or are they thinking about suicide.

“Anyone with mental health concerns should remember that there is hope and there is help,” said Friesen. “Be kind to yourself. Reach out and stay connected, take media/social media breaks regularly, take care of your body and seek professional help if you feel overwhelmed or are experiencing any suicidal or self-harm thoughts.”

If you or a loved one is struggling with mental health, do not be afraid to ask for help. Talk with your primary care physician or call the confidential and free Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) national helpline at 1-800-662-HELP. Also, AdventHealth Shawnee Mission offers outpatient and inpatient behavioral health programs with some of the most advanced treatment options. Call the AdventHealth Behavioral Health Assessment Center at 913-789-3218 to learn more.