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Health Matters: Depression and Anxiety Rise During COVID-19

Health Matters is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

The summer heat has arrived and despite holding our collective breath, the coronavirus has not miraculously disappeared. In persevering through a shutdown, a three-phase reopening, and now an emergency ordinance to limit sidewalk traffic, we have learned that we are resilient — but the cracks are starting to show in our population’s mental health.

In fact, nearly 30 percent of Americans are experiencing symptoms of clinical depression as of late July, compared to 6.6 percent last year based on a recent National Center for Health Statistics and Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. The numbers for anxiety closely mirror with 36 percent compared to 8.2 percent last year. The number of online mental health screenings has increased 400 percent. Perhaps the most alarming — albeit uncited — statistic comes from CDC director Robert Redfield, who stated that there have been far greater suicides and drug overdoses than COVID deaths among young people since the lockdown.

I have experienced this upward trend firsthand. There has been a doubling of old and new patients coming into the clinic for ketamine infusions, a relatively new FDA-approved modality used for treatment of depression and anxiety. The most commonly cited reasons I hear include: fear of getting sick, grief from sick loved ones, financial distress, loss of job, loss of community, home-life stress, and reduced access to healthcare. There is also something I call “COVID fatigue”, which is over-saturation of COVID coverage in the news and social media and includes the accompanying stress of teasing out fact from fiction. I realize the irony as I contribute another COVID article to the milieu.

How do you know if you are having depressive symptoms? The challenge is that depression and anxiety are on a spectrum, and sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint if it’s just a “bad day” or something more insidious. However, if feelings such as persistent sadness, emptiness, irritability, guilt, pessimism and emotional distancing occur for weeks and adversely affect sleep, appetite and work, then you may be dealing with pandemic-induced depression or anxiety.

There are measures you can take if you suspect you are depressed or anxious. If the symptoms are severe and debilitating, then contact your mental health professional. If suicidal, check yourself in to the hospital or at the very least call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HELLO to 741741 for the Crisis Text Line.

Here are some additional preventative measures.

Keep a schedule — This is game-changing if you have been laid off or need to take care of children. Interestingly, keeping a schedule for children has been shown to prevent childhood mood disturbances–particularly germane given full distance learning for Arlington Public Schools this fall. Creating goals that can be reasonably accomplished, such as reading a book or daily neighborhood walk, can boost dopamine in the brain and increased motivation and sense of accomplishment.

Connect with loved ones — Set time to reach out to close friends and family by phone, FaceTime or Zoom. Social connectedness is often overlooked, but is crucial in mental well-being.

Reevaluate mindset — While there are undoubtedly many negative things the pandemic has brought, it can be helpful to reframe your perspective and think of how the pandemic has been positive for you. For example, perhaps you have saved significant money from not traveling and dining out, or have gotten closer to family and friends. Doing this will also likely enhance your sense of gratitude once things normalize.

Utilize telemedicine — There is no need to feel medically stranded, as telemedicine use has increased out of necessity. Therapists and psychiatrists have pivoted to using it almost exclusively in many cases.

If your loved one is experiencing depression or anxiety, try to listen and validate the reasons for their feelings as opposed to trying to fix the situation. Let them know there is no weakness in seeking psychiatric help.

“Safer at Home” doesn’t necessarily mean it is safe to be home when it comes to mental health.  However, unlike COVID-19, there are proven ways to help prevent and treat depression and anxiety, and success starts with recognition of symptoms and seeking appropriate help.

Dr. George C. Hwang, known to his patients as Dr. Chaucer, is a practicing anesthesiologist who also helps to run Mind Peace Clinics in Arlington. He has written for multiple journals, textbooks and medical news outlets, and has been living in Arlington for the past 15 years.

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