The coronavirus pandemic has only made things worse for Bridgeport resident Lina Guerrero, who struggles with anxiety and depression.
”All these things that I would do for self-care before coronavirus is not what I need anymore,” Guerrero said.
Guerrero, a graduate student studying public administration at Adler University, said that going to work at St. James food pantry in Bronzeville has helped her manage her anxiety symptoms because it gives her a feeling of agency. But seeing the impact of COVID-19 on the people who come to the food kitchen — mostly seniors and people experiencing homelessness — has also added to her sense of despair, she said.
In Chicago and across the country, the pandemic and the accompanying social isolation have spiked symptoms of mental illness for some.
Summer Bukeavich, a professor at Pennsylvania College of Technology, started having panic attacks when she was 19. Soon after, she developed agoraphobia, a fear of outside spaces that can make stepping out the front door feel like falling off a cliff. It took Bukeavich years to conquer her anxiety disorder, she said.
Though restrictions have eased in Pennsylvania, Bukeavich said that spending long periods of time inside during quarantine brought fears that her agoraphobia was resurfacing.
“Even as I go out and take walks each day, which I try to do for my mental health, after I go a few blocks, I get that feeling in my stomach that makes me start feeling panicky. And I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, am I going to panic? Should I go home, should I keep pushing, should I keep going?’” Bukeavich said.
The sudden shuttering of everyday activities earlier in the pandemic response made it impossible for some to use the coping skills they had spent so long creating.
Bukeavich said when the pandemic began, she thought she would be able to handle the mental health challenges because of her years in therapy. But, as time wore on, she has found the experience has exacerbated her pre-existing conditions.
“I know how to play those mental games with myself to calm myself down when I’m feeling anxious and so on,” Bukeavich said, “But what I didn’t really anticipate was the fact that literally every support system that I have that’s outside of myself would fall away.”
For Gabe Howard, a mental health advocate and author from Ohio who has struggled with bipolar disorder since 2003, along with anxiety and depression, the pandemic eliminated all his usual coping mechanisms.
“(It’s) really frustrating because these coping skills took months, if not years to come up with,” Howard said. “And now within a short period of time, I’m asked to make new coping skills and it just doesn’t work that way. You can’t just turn it off.”
Howard said he worries about the effects the coronavirus has on suicide care. He’s concerned about the lack of support someone might get because some hospitals only allow the person seeking treatment to be in the emergency room. There’s also a risk of exposure to the virus while waiting with a friend or loved one, he said.
“Am I willing to sit in the emergency room with my friend for … however long it takes, and then risk carrying the potential coronavirus back to my loved ones, or getting it myself?” Howard said. “That changes the situation dramatically about how much care or support you’re willing to offer that person.”
The impact the pandemic has on suicide rates won’t be known for some time, possibly years, according to an American Psychological Association report in June. However, consequences of the pandemic such as economic stress, social isolation and decreased community support may create an increased suicide risk.
Erin Berman, a clinical psychologist at the National Institute of Mental Health, said that there’s not a standard protocol for people who are struggling with suicide during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that she directs people to the experts, such as the Disaster Distress Helpline.
“It’s very helpful many times, versus just even the daunting idea of going to the ER,” Berman said, adding that her approach is to “work with the things we have in place” before sending someone to the hospital.
Howard also said that while he’s glad there’s an increased discussion about mental health issues, he feels that people suffering from severe mental illness are being left out of the conversation.
“A lot of the focus is on how are we going to survive mentally through this process … not on how do we help people with schizophrenia through this process? How do we help people with bipolar disorder through this process?” Howard said.
Rachel Star Withers has schizophrenia.
Not being able to talk to people in person has worsened the South Carolina-based entertainment producer’s symptoms, she said.
“I hallucinate a lot more. I get weird,” Withers said.
She also added that as more people are talking about mental health issues, they’re primarily focusing on depression. “No one’s talking about schizophrenia. No one’s talking about hallucinations and that kind of thing.”
For some struggling with mental health issues, teletherapy has been an option.
Bukeavich, who said she sees a therapist every other week via video call, said the experience “gets the job done,” but that there are several problems with it, including technical delays in responses and an awkwardness that she feels while waiting for her therapist to reply on her end of the call.
Technical difficulties have become a common part of the telehealth experience, said Micah Ioffe, a psychologist at Light on Anxiety CBT Treatment Center in Chicago. But she added that there also have been numerous benefits, including increased accessibility and opportunities to employ exposure therapy techniques in real time.
“That’s been a wonderful way of working with clients who get stuck in their home setting, whether that’s repeated hand-washing or avoiding certain activities, we can be there with them,” Ioffe said.
If you or someone you know are experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or the Disaster Distress Helpline at 800-985-5990.