Isolation and mental health in the time of COVID

As the world processes the global COVID-19 pandemic, all states within America have implemented a set of guidelines for social distancing and isolation. Although these protocols are critical to minimize the cases of COVID-19 and to flatten the curve, they have a significant impact on people’s mental health, oftentimes in a negative way.  On March 10, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker announced that Massachusetts was in a state of emergency. As a result, citizens are now required to wear masks in public, non-essential businesses and all schools have been required to close or switch to non-contact forms of transactions, and all citizens are required to abide by social distancing and isolation rules, by staying 6 feet apart from others, and not gathering with anyone outside the residents of your home.

From a professional medical standpoint, Dr. John Sullivan, a neuropsychiatrist at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, agrees that the COVID-19 pandemic will likely lead to an increase in mental health problems among vulnerable people. In an interview with the Hallmanac, he said that “it is well known that changes in routine, increased uncertainty, and increased stress related to things like finances or health, can increase anxiety and cause or exacerbate depression. People with existing mental health issues are at risk of a worsening of their symptoms, and people without a previous mental illness may experience a new onset of anxiety or mood problems”. Dr. Sullivan added that it is important to keep in mind that this might happen during the lockdown itself or from people losing or worrying about the health of their loved ones. It is also likely to continue after the lockdown, due to the longer-term financial impacts of people being out of work and the economy being disrupted for months. 

Furthermore, Dr. Sullivan says that teenagers, in particular, have been impacted by this greatly. Teenagers, even in the best of times, are in a period of transition and uncertainty, moving from childhood into adulthood. Having the global uncertainty added on during this time only increases the dynamics that can make adolescence difficult even during times of stability. Without school, children and teenagers have no defined structure. Sleeping, eating, exercise, and social routines are disrupted. The normal teenage plans for the near future such as summer jobs, college applications, and returning to school in the fall, all feel up in the air right now. 

Dr. Pam Slater, the Director of Counseling at Dana Hall, touches on some of the symptoms of mental health issues that may arise during isolation and says that “for people who are struggling it has changed their relationships”. Many parents are not getting to see their children as much as they usually would, and grandparents are feeling particularly isolated and lonely because of how vulnerable they are during these times. In general, for everyone, this isolation is creating separations and making people very sad. For teenagers, the challenge is that for the most part, teens are in a period of their lives where they want more involvement with their peers, and they want independence. Due to isolation, these relationships have had to take a different form. “Having to see your friends virtually is hard; it doesn’t provide the same experience”, Dr. Slater says. Some people may experience boredom, while others are sad about what they are missing out on and the changes in their relationships as a result of social distancing. Dr. Slater emphasizes that “during this time it is normal to have some anxiety, it’s normal to have some sadness because of the uncertainty and the losses, and it’s normal for people to have good days and bad days. When it gets to a point that sadness can move into a state of depression and that’s different”. Depression is when sadness gets in the way of life normalities. Some symptoms of depression may include bad dreams, loss of appetite, excessive sleep, changes in one’s ability to concentrate, difficulty reading, difficulty focusing, and difficulty thinking clearly. Some people also oftentimes experience feelings of hopelessness, as well as the feeling of numbness; people might stop enjoying things they usually do and are low on motivation and energy.

Dr. Slater also highlights the accessibility for resources in the Dana Hall community that are still accessible despite these circumstances. If a student is noticing these symptoms in themselves or a friend, it is critical that they email a counselor at school and they will reach out. Consultations can take place through zoom to try and help students through difficult times they may be experiencing. If further action is necessary, it is encouraged to contact a therapist whom they can meet with on a regular basis by phone. 

Dana Hall students have been feeling the impact of isolation greatly, especially the seniors who are missing out on their prom, graduation, and the last few months with their peers. Sarah Syed ‘20 says “coronavirus has really taken us all by surprise, and the fact that the class of 2020’s senior spring has been ruined because of it has been the most disappointing. There’s a lot of uncertainty about what our graduation will look like, so it’s hard knowing what to look forward to”. Jasmine Huang ‘21 has a different situation being a junior, but still feels the impacts of the coronavirus on her mental health. She says, “one of the worst parts about quarantine is not being able to spend time with friends and family because we have to self isolate. It makes me feel really disconnected from those I care about. I haven’t been able to see people that I used to be able to see every day and it’s difficult to feel that I’m connected to them during this time”.

Members of our community are finding different ways to maintain their mental health during this unprecedented time. Ellie Fazio ‘21 says, “I have followed body/mental health confidence influencers,” and Halle Best ‘21 says that “I work out for at least 10 minutes every day to stay active, and make a smoothie every morning!” Having this time in self-isolation certainly makes caring for your mental health difficult, however it can open a lot of doors as well. Isolation is hard, and checking in on loved ones and yourself is integral.

During this difficult period that can have many negative effects on your wellbeing, it is important to alleviate your stress, anxiety, and sadness by taking positive action. Dr. Slater believes that “those of us fortunate enough not to have had very severe problems from this, people are going to learn skills that they may hold on to… You can’t make assumptions for how this has been for anybody. There are some positives that have been embedded in this that people are going to carry forward into the future.” Dr. Slater urges everybody to recognize the bad days, and choose to acknowledge and appreciate those feelings. Whether it be writing in a journal, talking about your feelings, working out, watching Netflix, enjoying nature, “doing the things that whatever… makes you feel more relaxed,” can “change your perspective a little bit.” Dr. Slater advises to let yourself experience your feelings. Talk to people you trust and get support when you need it. Another important component is to focus on keeping a routine that will give you structure. It is important to consistently eat, sleep, and exercise at similar times each day. Another helpful tip that Dr. Slater recommends is to stick to a strict news diet. Spending too much time on the news gives you added stress with not much new information.

Image source: Twitter.

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