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The 'Echo Pandemic' Is Real and Your Mental Health Is at Stake

The collateral damage from COVID-19 is here and more trouble is on the horizon. We’ve already seen a catastrophic uptick in depression and anxiety — 4 in 10 adults have experienced these conditions since the coronavirus pandemic began, up from 1 in 10, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Experts say it’s only going to get worse.

Mental health clinicians I’ve spoken with in recent days talk of an “echo pandemic,” where our collective mental health suffers because of COVID.

“An ‘echo pandemic’ refers to the crises that are anticipated to occur that are directly related to the pandemic but not due to the COVID-19 virus itself,” says Dr. Lori Ryland, a psychiatrist at Pinnacle Treatment Centers, a rehab with locations throughout the country. “It has been demonstrated that domestic violence rates, child abuse, suicide, and overdose rates are on the rise since the pandemic onset.”

Per my conversation with the media relations rep for Dr. Vaile Wright, on behalf of the American Psychological Association, a recent study found that 46% of American adults are not comfortable going back to living like they used to. And 49% are uneasy about adjusting to in-person interaction.

Behavioral health conditions such as depression, anxiety, loneliness and substance abuse have increased among individuals who have not met the criteria for these issues in the past, Dr. Ryland adds, pointing out that unemployment and financial insecurity only make matters worse. And, of course, those who have lost loved ones are grieving as well as people — especially first responders who have witnessed unspeakable tragedy and death — are already experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Deaths of despair had been increasing already, a phenomenon only magnified by the constant surge in celebrity suicides. Researchers are finding that, “a 1% rise in unemployment was associated with a rise in the suicide rate of 0.99% in the US.“ This is according to a study that appeared in the academic journal World Psychiatry.

We’re coming up on a year since the first lockdowns began and for some, it’s been an easy ride. Over the past year, people have dealt with isolation, but many have — dare I say — enjoyed it.

During the pandemic, those with mood disorders haven’t had to worry about obligations or going outside. They like doing telehealth with their therapists. And there is little pressure to do anything in particular. Those with sky-high anxiety may have experienced a bit of a break during those early months of the pandemic, many of whom were left with no need to be in anxiety-provoking social situations.

As I reported last spring, many who already had mood disorders such as bipolar disorder and depression have done just fine during the pandemic.

“I find that many people with chronic anxiety or depression are faring pretty well during this pandemic,” Dr. Eric Schieber, a psychiatrist and addiction specialist who sees patients in Chicago, told me last April. “They have known mental suffering and have built a kind of resistance to it.”

This is partially because they are home, safe in their cocoons and they don’t have to worry about interacting with people face-to-face. But what happens when everyone — mentally ill or not — emerges from their cocoons?

“People have become so used to being apart from one another that they may have challenges integrating again,” says Jhanelle Peters, mental health clinician for the Toronto Raptors NBA team. “Individuals may find it more difficult to hang out with people for extended periods of time, or get overwhelmed when they realize their threshold or tolerance of being around others has changed.”

Daniela Silva is a yoga teacher who also practices cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). She pointed out a fascinating study about chickens in cages, reported on by the Huffington Post. The article notes: “An experiment was run on chickens trapped in cages. After six months, they were set free. What happened? They jumped back into the cage. Humans behave similarly; we love comfort zones.”

According to several mental health practitioners, people who struggle with depression will see their depression lift in some cases, while anxiety will remain high upon reintegration for those who experience generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). However, over time, it will only get easier for them. So what happens next?

President Biden on Tuesday announced that there will be enough doses of COVID-19 vaccine for every adult in the nation come the end of May. But vaccines are not a panacea for mental health conditions.

“As a whole, our mental health has never been so poor and the adjustment back to ‘real life’ will illuminate this for many,” says psychotherapist Haley Neidich. “Folks who were able to function while at home may find that returning to their previous responsibilities is unmanageable. We will see a large contingent of folks who do incredibly well post-COVID and are able to fully jump back into their social lives, traveling and return to in-person work. Regardless of prior mental health status, we will also see that some folks struggle greatly to re-adjust to life after the pandemic.”

Although many adults will receive their vaccines by early summer, that’s the easy part. Like the chickens, we have all been locked away for a full year. Many of us will have difficulty reintegrating into the real world. Will we still be able to enjoy such outside activities as baseball games, concerts, parties and the like? Or will we continue basking in the comfort and safety of our cocoons, binge-watching Netflix and eating junk food? The consensus among professionals I’ve talked to is that we’re entering a tricky situation. We are in uncharted territory.

Photo by Engin Akyurt on Unsplash

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