On Nov. 9, 3,000 people died from COVID-19 in the United States, a record high. ICU beds across the country are rapidly being filled. It’s likely we are on the upward slope of a curve that will take many more lives before it’s done, according to predictions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The first effects of the pandemic nationwide happened in March, meaning, the U.S. has been under attack from the coronavirus for nine months. The last time the world experienced a pandemic of this nature was 1918, the Spanish Flu when 21 million people lost their lives.
Nine months of COVID-19 has also caused many Americans to experience a change for the worse in their mental health.
Common symptoms of COVID-19 are fairly well-known: cough, fever, or lack of taste, and smell. What isn’t as commonly known are the side effects of living through this pandemic: increased stress, anxiety, and depression.
There are a few warning signs to look for when dealing with these sensitive topics.
Reed Stoddard, the director of the BYU-Idaho Counseling Center, said it might be time to seek help if students are experiencing excessive sadness, irritability or symptoms of anxiety. Symptoms of anxiety could include excessive worrying, racing thoughts or physical discomfort.
A Kaiser Family Foundation poll taken in July reported that 53% of adults in the U.S. feel their mental health has been negatively impacted because of the increase in stress and anxiety during the pandemic. Stress, worry and anxiety are healthy to experience for short periods of time, but long-term anxiety can cause serious health concerns.
Fear about contracting the virus, fear about spreading the virus to loved ones or at-risk friends, fear about losing income or stability, and fear about figuring out how to work from home can all contribute to negative mental health impacts.
According to KFF, job loss is associated with increased anxiety, depression and low self-esteem, as well as an increased chance of substance abuse. The economy has recently taken a dive because of the shutdowns and many people have lost their jobs, which also negatively impacts mental health.
Stress can cause a change in sleep or eating habits, difficulty concentrating and a worsening of pre-existing chronic illnesses, according to the CDC. It can even affect the immune system, although whether or not stress may increase the risk of catching COVID-19 has yet to be determined, according to John Hopkins Medicine.
One common theme throughout this pandemic has been trying to stop the spread through social isolation. While this is an effective way to stop spreading disease, it might be damaging to people who are spending months alone without any physical interaction.
“I talk to a lot of students who are feeling isolated,” Stoddard said. “They came to school at least in part to meet people and expand their social network and that’s more difficult, more complicated because of the virus.”
Studies show that isolation and feelings of loneliness have a physical effect on the brain, namely in areas such as the prefrontal cortex, the hippocampus and the amygdala, according to The Scientist.
It is important to distinguish between physical loneliness and emotional loneliness. It is possible in today’s time to be physically isolated and still have social contact. Technology such as video chatting and social media can help us to feel connected to people, even when we can’t see them in person.
“The number one thing I think of is to try to be connected as much as possible given the circumstances,” Stoddard said.
He said to try to interact with roommates and spend more time in the common area of the apartment.
Stoddard explained there are other ways to connect as well, such as social media, texting, calling or FaceTiming. He said there might need to be a little creativity involved, and it’s not the preferred way to connect, but it’s better than feeling totally isolated.
Because things seem bad right now, it may be easier to experience feelings of hopelessness and depression.
Doctors suspect that people who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 may have a higher chance of developing mental health issues post-pandemic. According to Healthline, 18% of patients diagnosed with COVID-19 developed a mental health issue within three months of the diagnosis. The most common issues were depression, anxiety or dementia.
This risk seems to be doubled compared with those who didn’t have COVID-19. This can be caused by the psychological and physical effects of dealing with the relatively new disease.
In order to combat these mental health challenges and deal with the effects of the pandemic, the CDC recommends taking care of your body by doing things like deep breathing exercises, eating healthy, exercising regularly and getting plenty of sleep.
“You can still go outside,” Stoddard said. “As long as you socially distance or wear a mask. I just think it’s healthier if students would get out of their apartments more.”
He said that even in Rexburg’s winter, just 20 minutes of walking in the sunshine can do wonders.
The University also has a couple of ways students can get help for mental health, Stoddard shared.
One option is getting a consultation with the Counseling Center. Students work with a counselor to find out what their options are and make a plan for the best course of action.
Another option is an online program called Therapy Assistance Online, or TAO. This is a program that’s free to BYU-I students or faculty and has a variety of interactive programs dealing with mental health situations.
Visit Scroll’s website for more ways to find mental health help at BYU-I.