Our Unquiet Minds: The Mental Health Impact of COVID-19

I remember the exact moment when it happened.

I was sitting in my home office, a mere two months into Michigan’s initial COVID lockdown, eating crunchy oatmeal squares as I lazily perused my work emails from the comfort of my desk. As hard as the initial lockdown was, I always knew I was one of the lucky ones. My day job allowed me to work from home and my wife was able to work from home as well. Our daughter, while disappointed about missing marching band season, was thriving in the new world of online education. COVID was certainly terrible, but I was in the privileged position of being minimally affected.

That’s when I felt my bite suddenly start to wobble like a train starting to go off its tracks.

The cereal dropped out of my mouth and was quickly replaced by my index finger, searching for the cause of my bite misalignment. I searched and searched but found my answer when my finger pressed against my lower left molar and the tooth rocked back and forth ever so slightly.

Worried, I walked briskly to the bathroom to see with my own eyes what was happening. Was my previously healthy tooth falling out because of that blasted cereal? By the time I’d reached the bathroom, I began to feel flush with mounting anxiety. My dentist was shut down due to the pandemic. What if I needed oral surgery and couldn’t get it? Would my tooth just fall out?

Psychotherapists often ask clients to rate the intensity of their emotions on a 1-10 scale, where one represents very mild intensity and 10 is the strongest intensity imaginable. In normal times, that sudden dental problem would have caused me anxiety in the 4 range. But when it happened during the pandemic, it was easily an 8.

And I’m not alone in feeling an additional layer of anxiety overlaid onto my normal life.

Dr. Kristin Gillen, is a licensed psychologist and the co-owner of Southwest Psychology in Kalamazoo. She says since the pandemic began, she’s seen a swell of anxiety in her clients.

“While it’s difficult for us to fully comprehend the long-term effects of the pandemic on mental health at this point,” Dr. Gillen said, “there certainly has been an impact on mental health over the past 10-plus months. In particular, I’ve noticed a surge in anxiety. It’s a human tendency to fear the unknown; with this pandemic there has been much uncertainty so it’s understandable that anxiety has steadily increased for many individuals.”

That surge in anxiety has meant a spike in the demand for counseling services.

“I’ve been getting calls from all over the lower peninsula from people who want help with their anxiety,” says Cortney Jebelian, a licensed professional counselor who specializes in working with anxiety disorders. “I can’t keep up with the number of requests for appointments, even with working 50-60 hours a week. Most all of my clients are still working or attending school from home. Some decided to come to therapy because they wanted to take the opportunity to work on self-improvement. Many have found they were able to cope fairly well, and the pandemic tipped them over the edge.”

While at this point it’s too early to really know how many of us have been tipped over the edge by the pandemic, there’s reason to believe the number is significant. According to the British Medical Journal,modeling studies suggest the emotional response to the COVID-19 pandemic will likely increase suicide rates between 100 to 145 percent. A survey study in the Journal of the American Medical Association Network, noted a threefold increase in depression after the pandemic started compared to rates documented prior to the novel coronavirus.

All that we know seems to point to increases in anxiety, depression, and likely more interpersonal problems as a result of COVID as well.

A recent study in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy noted that among individuals in relationships, 34 percent of respondents acknowledged some degree of conflict with their romantic partners due to the spread of COVID-19.

“People get on each other’s nerves” due to the stress of COVID, said Dr. Ron Crafton, a licensed psychologist and professional counselor. “Couples need to be aware that these stressors can have a negative impact and build in buffers and cushions into their relationships, like a date night or playing a non-competitive board game to diffuse some of the intensity before it escalates.”

The stress of this pandemic has impacted all of us in many subtle ways, and therapists are certainly not immune to the emotional impact.

“Sometimes I don’t even know what to say to people,” admitted Jebelian. “I am dealing with my own reactions to the pandemic, and then I have to hold it together while working out of a corner in my bedroom. They didn’t exactly cover how to be a counselor during a world pandemic and political unrest in grad school.”

None of us, regardless of our wealth, education or privilege, has ever lived through a time when the normal milestones of our lives—weddings, graduations, funerals—have been canceled or even outlawed by the State of Michigan.

“I’ve also been attuned to the pervasiveness of grief and loss,” Gillen explained. “This pandemic has upended so many of our worlds and has taken a lot from us, leaving so many grappling with grief. 400,000 lives in the United States have been lost directly due to this pandemic, plus many more indirect but equally devastating losses of life. 

“Job loss is another area contributing to grief; with this type of loss, there is sometimes a collateral loss of identity and purpose. Other losses have involved the loss of fun and social connection: weddings, graduation parties, and other important events have been canceled and there is a deep disappointment and grief that accompanies these losses.”

But when crisis comes, so does opportunity, and Gillen notes that the news has not been all bad. “For many, this has been an opportunity to decide how they want to spend their time and energy, what relationships they want to cultivate, and what is truly important.”

Gillen suggests to best cope with the stress of COVID people should “take time to reset and restore, that might be exercising, spending time in nature, learning something new, journaling, reducing time on social media/limiting news intake, getting a massage, listening to music, watching a comedy, and having a day where you give yourself permission to ‘just be’ and relax.”

People should “allow themselves to feel the range of emotions that they might be experiencing, and to talk about these feelings with a trusted friend, family member, therapist, clergy, etc. We all need support, validation, and a reminder that we are not alone and that there are others out there who genuinely care.”

“Sleep is hugely important,” adds Crafton. “Get on a sleep schedule and a routine if you’re having trouble sleeping. It’s also a good idea to create a buffer zone before bedtime” with no electronic screens, food or exercise to calm down and prepare for rest in the hour or two before sleeping.

As for me, I didn’t lose a tooth during the pandemic after all.

While my dentist had closed her office, when I called the emergency number my dentist opened up the office for me so she could take a look. It turns out the problem was just a loose crown. She took the damaged crown off so it could be repaired, put on a temporary one, and spent an extra few minutes reassuring me it wasn’t nearly as bad as I initially thought it was.

Sometimes, in the midst of a crisis, a tiny dose of compassion, and a little help keeping things in perspective can be very powerful medicine. 

Charles D. Thomas is a writer, psychotherapist, and Main Street Media Group board member who made Three Rivers his home for over a decade. Feedback is welcome at [email protected]

Any views or opinions expressed in “Big World, Small Town” are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Watershed Voice staff or its board of directors.