By: Ana Altchek, Follow South Jersey Intern
SOUTH JERSEY — Since the pandemic started, mental health has emerged to the forefront of mainstream conversation and gained a new level of importance in American culture.
Given the unprecedented nature of the COVID era, this marks a necessary societal shift that was vital for people to get through this challenging time. With the new conditions under a government imposed infectious disease shutdown, many people experienced sharp halts in their routines that affected their sleep schedules, physical activity, social interaction and daily life. These changes naturally led to an increase in mental health issues and severity that didn’t exist prior.
According to a CDC study from June 2020, nearly one-third of US adults suffered from anxiety or depression just a couple months after the pandemic began. For young adults, this rate nearly doubled. Additionally, out of the 60% of individuals age 18-24 at risk for depression or anxiety, a quarter of them reported considering committing suicide the month prior. CDC data also reveals that annual overdose deaths were nearly 50% higher in 2021 than in 2019, with over 108,000 deaths.
While these numbers are staggering, they helped push a shift in mainstream media that led many people to speak more openly about mental health and seek out resources when necessary. Even without the effects of the pandemic, this shift represents a positive movement towards normalizing mental health issues and therefore making it more accessible for people to receive.
Anna Kress, an NJ based clinical psychologist with nearly 20 years of experience, reaffirms that this shift remains one of the good things about the pandemic.
“It decreased the stigma associated with mental health issues,” she says. “More people are open about getting therapy than ever. There’s also an acknowledgment that we need to work toward greater access and affordability when it comes to mental health services.”
Now that the worst of the pandemic is over for the moment, it’s more important than ever for people to keep mental health a central priority and for workplaces and peers to stay sensitive to the mental health issues of those around them. Even if the pandemic exacerbated peoples’ existent mental health issues and new problems for those who didn’t previously struggle, it still illuminates the pervasiveness of the issue in the country in general.
During the pandemic, many relied on unhealthy strategies such as drinking and overeating to cope with isolation and deal with stressors of the pandemic. Some of those strategies have persisted and led to declining mental health. After living in a survival mode for an extended period, many people now have symptoms that they didn’t prior, that needs to be addressed.
With workplaces finally returning to in-person work schedules and mask mandates being lifted in schools, many feel that the transition is a bit quick considering the last two years have been shut down. Kress says that this prioritization is vital because mental health disorders don’t simply abate on their own, even if the original cause was induced by the pandemic.
Kress mentions that many people feel burnt out from the pandemic and the prevalence of mood disorders is still extremely high. Many are currently experiencing a decrease in motivation and focus after prolonged stress. These effects are evident in everything from company morale to the demand placed on school counseling offices.
“In addition to depression and anxiety, many people have developed trauma and stress related symptoms that can persist.” Kress notes. “Traumatic responses such as a foreshortened sense of the future can make people feel like the future will be cut short.”
Some of these symptoms may include distressing dreams, angry outbursts, hypervigilance, social withdrawal, reckless behavior and a diminished ability to feel positive emotions. With that in mind, for those who are struggling with mental health, it’s important to continue to seek mental health treatment rather than hope it will dissipate on its own.
Additionally, it’s important for people to remain patient with themselves and others during this transition. People are still dealing with the effects of the pandemic, like ongoing unpredictability and grieving losses of people, jobs, or experiences. Thus, it may take time to establish new routines and to get comfortable with socializing again.
Kress says everyone should stay on the lookout for people having trouble with daily functioning or ongoing changes in mood or other new or worsening symptoms. These signs may point to a need in seeking professional health.
Just because the pandemic had a negative affect on mental health though, doesn’t mean the population is doomed. Kress notes that mental health will continue to be something that everyone has to keep an eye on. She says that mental health treatment is an important part of recovery. People struggling with their mental health can engage in stress management strategies such as exercise, healthy eating, meditation, and social support, as these are vital activities for releasing daily stress and regulating emotions.
Kress also suggests working on small achievable goals and enjoyable future plans.
While it’s crucial to acknowledge the last two years and the hardships it caused, it’s equally important to build resilience and continue to move forward, which these tactics and general awareness of the issue at hand, can help do.
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