Encourages people to ’look beyond fear’

A local mental health professional is encouraging people across the region to prioritize their mental health during this unprecedented time of social distancing amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Statewide and local closure orders that have been in place since mid-March to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) have caused thousands of people to need to file for unemployment as they face financial uncertainties. All families across Kentucky, as well as other states, are urged to stay at home as much as possible to prevent spreading the virus and practice social distancing, keeping at least six feet from other people.

These sudden disruptions to the daily lives of millions of people have caused mental health challenges to worsen in the region, particularly for those most vulnerable.

Dr. Leigh Ann Ford, a licensed psychologist and Lindsey Wilson College assistant professor, said that although the pandemic has affected people in different ways, people have generally experienced more depression and anxiety overall. She said that it has been particularly difficult for people with preexisting mental health conditions because the pandemic seems to have “exacerbated” their symptoms and has limited the treatment of those most vulnerable due to health guidelines limiting in-person contact.

“I think there’s still this level of fear and anxiousness because, while we know more than we did six weeks ago, there’s still a lot of unanswered questions,” Ford said. “I think, now, it’s more of the depression that is sinking in because this has gone on for so long. Now, there’s a lot of worries about, ‘What is my future going to look like after this is over?’ We’ve got a lot of people out there that are suffering financially, and while the virus numbers may be going down and may be subsiding, the financial issues are worsening for people.”

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, stress during an infectious disease outbreak can include fear and worry about your own health and the health of your loved ones, changes in sleep or eating patterns, difficulty sleeping or concentrating, worsening of chronic health problems and increased use of alcohol, tobacco or other drugs.

Ford said that the pandemic has also caused anxiety in many adults over how they will manage their other unrelated health conditions, like heart disease and diabetes, due to people not wanting to or being unable to visit the doctor and people not wanting to go to the hospital right now.

Ford said, though, that families should not underscore how the pandemic has negatively impacted children, particularly teenagers and young adults who are about to graduate high school or college. She said many of them are concerned about their futures because they wonder how they will be impacted by this pandemic and if they will still be able to afford going to college.

“Let’s not forget everything that they lost here that they’ve looked forward to and worked for for 18 years — proms, graduations, state tournaments and so forth,” Ford said. “That’s a big blow to them, and I think that as adults, we have to be careful. While we feel that our world is kind of crashing down around us, let’s not forget that that’s their world, and we don’t need to minimize their loss or what they’re going through right now.”

The social distancing requirement has negatively impacted many people, particularly in Eastern Kentucky, because local, state and federal health officials urge people to only stay with those with whom they live. People are urged not to visit loved ones in other places outside of their own homes, particularly older people, and to not gather with their friends in-person in order to prevent spreading the virus.

While people have connected with their loved ones and friends online — through social media, texting, calling or online video chat applications, like Zoom, FaceTime or Skype — Ford said this does not replace in-person human contact, and that has also worsened feelings of isolation and depression for many people as the pandemic has continued.

“When we are afraid, we naturally want to reach out to those closest to us. We want to be around family, and we can’t,” Ford said. “I think that’s one of the things that’s really wearing people down emotionally because people are social creatures by nature. I think more and more people are becoming more introverted with social media and everything, but I think this has really brought to everyone’s attention just how social we are, that FaceTiming and texting is great but it does not replace that human contact.”

Ford recommended ways that people can prioritize and improve their mental health during this time. First, she encouraged people to limit the time that they spend watching news coverage of the pandemic on TV and reading stories and other posts about it on social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. She said that people can worsen their mental health by engaging in heated arguments through Facebook and reading negative posts and news stories that people share on the site.

Ford warned of how too much exposure to news stories and media about the COVID-19 pandemic can actually harm people and cause them to develop trauma-like symptoms. Ford cited a study that the American Psychological Association published March 25, which found that people with too much coronavirus media exposure will be more likely to experience psychological distress and trauma-like symptoms.

Ford said typical trauma-like symptoms after a crisis could include intrusive thoughts, exaggerated startled response, nightmares, restless sleep, continued feelings of anger and guilt and others, although typical trauma symptoms come after the trauma.

“I can see that happening, and it brought up the question of how many people are going to continue to experience these trauma symptoms after this is over,” Ford said. “There are a lot of people that are just consumed with watching coverage of what’s going on, and that’s not a good thing.”

The study compared the 24/7 news media coverage of the pandemic today to how people were impacted by the constant news coverage that followed the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the Boston Marathon bombings and the Ebola outbreak.

According to the study, researchers found that constant media exposure of a collective crisis during the 24/7 news cycle can increase perceptions of threat and activate the “fight or flight” response, which can cause physical or mental health problems as a result.

“Limiting yourself on social media and on TV even, that’s important. We don’t need to be consumed with this, and when you do seek information, seek it from credible sources, not just an article that someone shared because there’s more misinformation than good information being floated out there.”

Ford highly recommended that people engage in physical activity to better their mental health while they engage in social distancing during this time.

“It’s getting nicer and warmer outside, and as long as you keep the distance between you and other people, get out and move around,” Ford said. “Physical activity is wonderful to combat feelings of depression.”

Ford recommended that people do fun activities with people in their homes, like board games and other activities, and said it was important for people to maintain a schedule during this time in order to help prepare themselves mentally for after the pandemic ends.

“It’s hard working from home, and we’re tempted to stay in pajamas all day,” Ford said. “But make yourself get up, stick to a routine, put on regular clothes and not just fall into this rut of being in pajamas all day. The longer that goes on, the harder it is to get back into a normal routine.”

Ford said she hopes that people will start to think beyond the fear that has affected many people from the pandemic, and she urged people to find hope in their daily lives.

“At this point, I know that we still have a long way to go with this, but I think that it’s important that people start to think beyond the fear that is going on and start thinking about what life is going to look like once we get past this,” Ford said. “Stop focusing on the fear and start looking a little more toward hope.”

Across the country, there is a worry among mental health experts that the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to an increase in suicide rates, due to people experiencing more feelings of depression, anxiety and hopelessness.

“It’s important to realize that when a person gets to that point and they’re contemplating suicide, it’s not so much that they want to die. It’s that they feel that there’s no hope,” Ford said. “They feel that the situation they’re in is hopeless, it’s never going to get better and they don’t see another way out. I’m afraid that there are a lot of Americans right now, or even people around the world, that are feeling that way. I think that we really need to start instilling hope. We need to take precautions, of course, but we have to start thinking more hopeful.”

If you or someone you know may be contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at, 1-(800)273-8255, or text HOME to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line. In emergencies, call 911, or seek care from a local hospital or mental health provider.

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