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The pandemic’s toll on mental health

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With millions infected with COVID-19 over the past year, the coronavirus undeniably has had an impact on the physical health of Americans. But according to mental health professionals, the pandemic has affected the mental health of many, too. Beyond the stress of contracting or spreading the virus, changes such as job losses, virtual schooling and teleworking, increased isolation, social unrest, misinformation, burnout, illness and the deaths of hundreds of thousands have taken their toll. Catholic counselors highlight constructive ways to overcome it all.

According to an American Psychological Association study conducted in February 2021, slightly more than 3 in 10 adults reported their mental health has worsened compared with before the pandemic. Nearly half of mothers and 30 percent of fathers who still have children home for remote learning reported their mental health has worsened. More than 60 percent of adults have experienced undesired weight gain or loss. Two in three Americans said they are sleeping more or less than they wanted to since the pandemic started.

Three things that have made the pandemic so difficult have been the instability, isolation and insecurity, said Lorenzo Resendez, a counselor with the diocesan Catholic Charities Family Services Program. “There’s a sense of being in a perpetual waiting period with no real end in sight. There’s no stability for what tomorrow is going to look like,” he said. “That need for social interaction is being unfulfilled. And insecurity: for a lot of our clients, there’s this overwhelming sense of dread and fear.” 

The American Psychoanalytic Association has outlined the psychological impact of the pandemic, referring to the shared response as Pandemic Trauma and Stress Experience. Signs of PTSE in individuals include fear of giving or getting COVID-19, “fear for the future, weariness for the present, grief for a lost past, increased frustration and despair, increased mental mistakes, a kind of fuzzy thinking (and) hypervigilance to potential loss, injury, and illness.” 

Though many have experienced some level of pandemic-induced stress, some have suffered a lot. Diocesan Catholic Charities counselors are seeing more patients and increased stress from existing clients, said Resendez. “I’m seeing higher levels of anxiety, of being overwhelmed from the lack of a job, social interaction, isolation, causing very high levels of depression,” he said. “We've had a lot of our clients (who) are starting to experience more frequent suicidal (thoughts), that feeling of being overwhelmed and having nowhere to turn to, the feeling of now trying to juggle their entire lives, and potentially their children’s lives, all by themselves or with minimal resources.” 

For those who struggled with past substance abuse or self-harm, the temptation to relapse can be great. “A lot of (past users) have started reverting back to those tendencies, having stronger cravings for substance use,” said Resendez. “Mentally, that’s just how they coped in the past with difficult situations like this and so the mind naturally reverts back to what worked in the past.”

Children are also suffering, he said, with many battling low self-esteem and thoughts of self-harm. According to the American Psychological Association survey, Gen Z, or teens and young adults, report being the most mentally impacted by the pandemic compared to other generational cohorts. “(Children) are experiencing depression and anxiety, trying to meet the same standards as before with (fewer) resources, less social interaction and potentially a family that has a higher stress level as well,” said Resendez. 

The pandemic also has been extremely difficult for health care workers, such as doctors and nurses, who have witnessed more suffering and death, said Paula J. Hamm, a Catholic psychoanalyst who has a practice in McLean. Hamm is part of a project called “The Things They Carried,” which helps doctors cope with the pandemic through writing. Professionally, it’s been hard for her, too. “It’s been a really difficult time to be a clinician because there’s so much pain,” she said. “I rely heavily on my colleagues. I’m in all kinds of support groups.”

mh infographic Resendez advises people to fight isolation by tapping into their social community, whether it be through regular phone calls, small gatherings or attending Mass again. “We are made to interact with other people and from a biological, spiritual and psychological aspect that is the majority of what makes us feel who we are,” he said. “If we’re in a situation where it's not possible, we’re now having to battle against our own human nature that says we need to be around people. It goes back to the core of who we are.”

Though the pandemic has presented serious challenges that have taxed the mental health of many, Hamm is helping her clients to remain resilient and see the opportunity in their adversity. Presenting at the American Psychoanalytic Association in February, she quoted St. Cyprian, who during a plague said, “Stand erect amidst the ruins of the human race and embrace the gift of the occasion.” 

Hamm says that, while the suffering of crises such as the pandemic can appear overwhelming on the surface, looking deeper, personal and spiritual growth abounds. 

“A more intimate, truer part of the self can be seen emerging from within the cracks and crevices.”


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021