In early February, the United States hit the grim anniversary of one year since the first death from COVID-19. Since then, our lives have changed in a way that hasn’t been experienced since the influenza pandemic of 1918. It’s shocking to look back and realize that it has been nearly one year since I last saw my classmates at LSU. It feels like it was only weeks ago that we attended the Field Fair and left having no idea when we would next see each other. At the same time, it feels like it has been forever since I was last able to comfortably be around a crowd of people, or walk by someone without worrying in the back of my head that they might be carrying the virus, or cough without immediately thinking about how I may have been exposed. One writer even dubbed this past year as a “time warp,” and I can’t think of a better way to describe this feeling. What it is, is a reaction to trauma.
Although trauma may not be the first word that comes to mind when thinking about our time spent shut indoors binging Netflix and gaining twenty pounds, trauma doesn’t always come from things like abuse or natural disasters. Trauma can come from unexpected sources and have unexpected symptoms. And although I joke about binging Netflix, I don’t mean to make light of our collective experiences at all. Even for those of us not on the front lines, COVID has taken away much of what used to get us through the drudges of everyday life. Furthermore, at this stage of the pandemic, it’s hard to find anyone who hasn’t lost somebody to the virus. In fact, an estimated 5 million people are in bereavement. Other experiences, like having to navigate virtual school or the blurring of work-life boundaries, can also be traumatic. It’s also important to remember that what may not be traumatic to one person may very well be traumatic to someone else.
That of course brings us to the question of “What is trauma?” The American Psychological Association describes trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event”, but trauma isn’t simply confined to one event or moment. It can also lead to long-term, behavioral reactions - like avoiding someone for fear of infection or avoiding any situation where there may be a crowd. The interesting thing about these reactions is that in many ways they can be adaptive, or, in other words, helpful or even necessary for survival during the event. When these behaviors and feelings continue well past the event and begin interfering with your life is when they become maladaptive, or harmful. Take the above behaviors as an example - right now, avoiding crowds and other people as much as possible is crucial to surviving the pandemic. But if those fears and behaviors continue, it could become harmful. It is normal, however, for it to take some time to unlearn these fears, anxieties, and behaviors. In fact, it’s kind of incredible that our bodies and minds were able to adapt so well to such a novel situation. When state officials begin to lift restrictions on social gatherings, give yourself time to recover and acknowledge all of the strength that you exhibited during these times. But if anxiety goes on for too long and starts interfering with your life, that’s when you should consider seeing a professional.
Rising rates of depression and anxiety have been another of the pandemic’s obvious impacts. According to a recent poll by TheStandard, rates of mental health issues among U.S. workers increased from 39% pre-pandemic to 46% post-pandemic, and rates of serious mental health issues have increased from 7% to 11%. One member of Together Baton Rouge reported that participating in our events, even virtually, saved her life. I shudder to think of all of the people who didn’t have that kind of community support.
With these rising rates of trauma, anxiety, depression, and other mental disorders, it is crucial that we are able to recognize symptoms so we can help those in need. For depression, some symptoms include: trouble concentrating, remembering details, or making decisions; fatigue, feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and helplessness; pessimism and hopelessness; insomnia (not being able to sleep) or hypersomnia (Sleeping too much), irritability, restlessness, anhedonia (losing interest in things you used to enjoy), overeating or loss of appetite; physical symptoms, such as aches, pains, or digestive problems, and suicidal thoughts. Symptoms of anxiety include nervousness, restlessness, or being tense; rapid heart rate or breathing, difficulty focusing, and others. Some anxiety symptoms—like insomnia, fatigue, and gastrointestinal problems— can also overlap with those exhibited by someone who is struggling with depression. If you recognize any of these symptoms in someone in your life, make sure to reach out to them. And in this case, reaching out should be more than saying, “I’m here if you need me.” While this communicates a good intention, people usually tend to isolate when they are experiencing anxiety or depression, so they are unlikely to reach out on their own even when you invite them to do so.
Of course, the pandemic has also affected our ability to recognize these symptoms in our friends and family, given our lack of physical interaction with others. It may take some questioning and empathy to get to the meaning of what someone is saying over the phone or on Zoom. For example, if a friend of yours tells you every day that they’re “just so tired,” that could mean they’re experiencing fatigue or insomnia, a symptom of anxiety/depression, so this would be a good opportunity to ask them if something is wrong. Or if you call someone in the afternoon and they tell you they just woke up, they could be experiencing hypersomnia, another depression symptom. Another example may be a once-optimistic friend who now says COVID is never going away and that they don’t think they’ll ever be able to see their loved ones again. These are only a few examples and they may not all necessarily indicate that someone is depressed. As I said earlier, some fears and anxieties are a normal response to what we’re going through. But it is always better to be safe than sorry. If you do feel that someone you know needs help, refer them to a mental health professional who will be able to make an official diagnosis and provide them with the services they need. Many therapists are now offering telehealth services, and apps such as BetterHelp offer low-cost online therapy as well.
This next section addresses an extremely difficult conversation to have, but one that may save a life. The topic of that conversation is suicide. I myself lost my father to suicide in 2015, and when it happened I remember telling myself that losing a loved one in this way is something I never wanted anyone else to go through. I hope that by sharing some of the warning signs with you I can help prevent just that. Even prior to COVID, suicide was the second leading cause of death for 15-24-year-olds and for people over 60. With disruptions in school, increased social isolation, and a greater risk of death in the case of older demographics, these two groups have been some of the most impacted by the pandemic.
If you’re worried a loved one might be thinking about suicide, you should be aware of these warning signs:
- Talking about it
- Expressing feeling of emptiness and hopelessness, claiming there is no reason to live
- Planning or looking for a way to kill themselves
- Talking about great guilt or shame
- Talking about feeling trapped/feeling there are no solutions
- Feeling unbearable physical or emotional pain
- Using alcohol or drugs more often
- Acting anxious or agitated
- Changing eating/sleeping habits
- Showing rage/talking about revenge
- Taking risks that could lead to death (risky driving, etc.)
- Extreme mood swings
- Giving away important or valuable possessions
- Saying goodbye to friends and family
- Putting their affairs in order
People at the highest risk of suicide are those with a plan and who have access to a means of killing themselves. It is important to ask directly if you feel that someone is at risk. Contrary to popular belief, asking someone if they are thinking about suicide does not increase the risk. If they are in immediate danger, do not leave the person alone and call 911. You can also encourage them to call the Suicide Hotline (800-273-8255). If they aren’t in immediate danger, encourage them to seek treatment and try to remove dangerous items (such as pills, rope, etc.) from their home if possible. Although there is a misconception that people expressing suicidal thoughts are just “seeking attention,” please, take every statement seriously.
While this post aimed to cover a range of information about mental health , it is by no means exhaustive. For more information, I recommend visiting sites such as the Suicide Prevention Lifeline (https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/) or the National Institute of Mental Health (https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/suicide-prevention/index.shtml). The NIMH also offers resources about coping with COVID specifically, and is a great resource for learning about anything regarding mental health. I hope if you’re reading this blog that you are doing well and that it helped you in some way. I also hope that the pandemic will lead to greater mental health awareness once it finally comes to an end. Feel free to reach out to me at [email protected] if you need help finding more information!