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As Pandemic Drags On, The Burden Of Isolation Takes An Increasing Toll On Mental Health04:37
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A woman sits alone in an empty pavilion at Revere Beach. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A woman sits alone in an empty pavilion at Revere Beach. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Some days are better than others, says Lisa Charland, a 36-year-old who lives in Billerica. She fills her days reading, blogging and watching TV. But that isn’t enough to stave off the feelings of isolation, anxiety and depression that have harried her since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

It’s easy to feel lonely when so many people are staying close to home, avoiding gatherings, and many businesses are shuttered. But for Charland, who battles anxiety and bipolar disorder, those feelings of loneliness are even worse. For people who experience anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions, the strain of isolation is particularly heavy.

Before any of this started, Charland says a regular routine of going to work and seeing friends and family helped her stay positive and keep her anxiety under control. The coronavirus pandemic blew all of that up. Her fears intensified so much that as time went on, she quit her job at a local grocery store.

Initially, Charland says she and her husband started keeping their distance at home because of her job. But even after she quit, they continued this new routine. “It felt like the smart thing to do,” she says.

“Actually, we’re using separate bathrooms. My area has mostly been the upstairs, and he’s been mainly using downstairs. That’s where his office and stuff is,” Charland says. “One time he passed me in the kitchen. I was feeling of agitated, and I just kind of snapped at him. I didn’t mean to. I think this situation is just causing so much stress and anxiety.”

Over the last few weeks, Charland has seen almost no one outside of her husband. She has been talking to her friends and family over video calls or social media but, lately, even that’s become less frequent. Charland says as she felt more depressed, she stopped reaching out the way she did at the start of the pandemic.

“I haven’t been engaging with my friends as much because I’m like, ‘I feel so negative today.’ I don’t want to burden them with my negativity or, you know, maybe they’re tired of me being negative all the time,” she says.

“It’s the majority of folks who I see as patients who have experienced an increase in mental health symptoms from this.”

Jennifer Douglas, clinical psychologist at Stanford University

As the weeks drag on, she says it’s become more difficult for her to manage her symptoms of anxiety and depression.

“I think the isolation is getting to me now,” she says. “I think it’s easy for me to get into my own head if I’m isolated, and I just sort of spiral.”

In those moments, Charland's head fills with negative thoughts. She ruminates over the things she regrets. At times, she says, she struggles with ideas of suicide.

Recently, she's been having racing thoughts of catching the coronavirus, and her anxiety boils over.

“Like I ordered a book from Amazon the other day, and I read a little bit of it. And I was like, ‘oh my gosh what if I got it from the book? What if I got it from the package? Oh god I have it now,’” she says. “Irrational thoughts. I just have to talk myself down from that.”

Like Charland, many people who struggle with mental health conditions are finding it more and more difficult to cope with their symptoms during the pandemic, says Jennifer Douglas, a clinical psychologist at Stanford University.

“I’ve had clients who struggled with trauma and have been doing great work, then this COVID pandemic sent this massive curveball,” she says. “It’s the majority of folks who I see as patients who have experienced an increase in mental health symptoms from this.”

That’s likely in part due to the added stress of living during a pandemic and all the health and economic uncertainties that go along with it, as well as the daily disruption to our regular lives and routines.

“It can be hard to build healthy habits. So, to have them start being undone, bombed by this situation can just be heartbreaking and so frustrating to hear."

Lindsay Henderson, director of clinical services at Amwell Health

The National Disaster Distress Hotline says calls there increased more than 300% in the month of March alone. Massachusetts' 24-hour hotline for people seeking mental health assistance also has seen an increase in calls lately.

“A lot of our mental wellness depends on social connection, physical activity, events and work that bring meaning to us,” says Lindsay Henderson, the director of clinical services at Boston teletherapy company Amwell Health. “It can be hard to build healthy habits. So, to have them start being undone, bombed by this situation can just be heartbreaking and so frustrating to hear."

She says this can be especially difficult for patients that already suffer from mental health conditions. In studies looking at the effect of quarantines during the SARS epidemic, Henderson says researchers found that people experienced a sense of isolation and a lack of social and physical contact and, later, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety.

“Some of these symptoms can actually be fairly long lasting after the quarantine is lifted,” she says. “What worries me is that this could potentially have a longer-term effect on some individuals.”

There are ways to try to stay positive and healthy through periods of isolation. Henderson says the first thing is simply to be kind to ourselves.

“And be accepting of what we can and cannot do at this time and let go of any sort of pressure on ourselves to be perfect,” she says.

New routines and activities that can be practiced while keeping a safe distance from others are good too, says Stanford’s Jennifer Douglas. She says these activities can help you feel grounded and happy.

“Whether it’s going out for a run, texting an old roommate, opening up to your partner – having a space to process and be honest about the feelings we are having during this event is one of the most healing things we can do,” she says.

And she says it’s a good thing that mental health is on our minds right now. One positive effect of the pandemic, she says, is that it has made many people think more deeply about how we take care of one another, and ourselves.

This article was originally published on May 14, 2020.

This segment aired on May 14, 2020.

Angus Chen Twitter Reporter, CommonHealth
Angus Chen is a reporter for WBUR's CommonHealth.

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