Winter months are traditionally hard on the mental health for millions of Americans, but as we make our way through a second pandemic winter of isolation and uncertainty, millions more are struggling to cope with feelings of anxiety and depression.
We asked readers to tell us how their mental health has been impacted by the pandemic, and they shared how they’re coping, or not, as we head toward the third year of the pandemic.
Dr. Jennie Kuckertz, a clinical fellow in psychology at Harvard Medical School, told Boston.com that increased rates of mental health issues have been fairly consistent since the start of the pandemic.
In 2019, 1 in 10 adults in the country reported having symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, but during the pandemic that number has risen to 4 in 10, according to a study by Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit organization focusing on national health issues.
“As a person on the autism spectrum it is extremely stressful and anxiety-inducing and I have meltdowns daily,” said Shaun from Lancaster. “As the pandemic rages on, my mental health grows worse and worse. I’m super angry at the people who just won’t do what is asked of them. It feels like this pandemic will never end.”
Dr. Elaine Espada, the founder of Beacon Therapy Group, responded to our survey and said that her practice, along with many others in Massachusetts, has seen an “unrelenting demand” for its services. Espada, a trauma-focused psychologist, said the demand for services is greater than the supply at all levels, including schools, inpatient units, and outpatient clinics.
“At the start of the pandemic there was an increased level of anxiety about catching the virus,” she told Boston.com. “As we isolated more we’re really noticing more depression symptoms. My clients are oftentimes reporting feeling down, stuck, isolated. And now to add to that a level of confusion.”
As we continue to navigate the best practices to protect our physical health, Espada and Kuckertz said there are things we can do to try to safeguard our mental health as well.
Connect with a mental health professional.
If therapy is available to you, Kuckertz said it’s important to take advantage of it. Liz from Wakefield told Boston.com that seeking out therapy helped her receive the diagnosis and treatment for depression and anxiety disorders.
“I feel very lucky to have found a therapist who I love in the last month but deeply feel for anyone going through the same struggles without the right support system or access to the healthcare or time off they need,” said Liz from Wakefield.
Espada said it was important to not get discouraged if you aren’t able to find a therapist immediately.
“I’ve been seeing a lot of folks call and [the practice] isn’t accepting and then they call somewhere else and they’re not accepting,” she said. “Get on everyone’s waitlist. Everyone is accepting clients eventually.”
Be informed, but not consumed by panic.
We’ve all been inundated with the continuous developments about COVID and for that, Kuckertz recommends going on a news diet.
Ryan from Roslindale said the ever-changing rules about COVID precautions give him anxiety and anger towards the government and public health officials leading the pandemic response.
“I’m not depressed because of COVID, the illness. I’m depressed because of the hysterical, irrational response to it. I’m depressed because I’m being asked to sacrifice my happiness to protect people who refuse to protect themselves,” he said.
Kuckertz said it’s not uncommon for people to get consumed by an onslaught of negative information.
“When we consume a lot of news it’s easy for our mind to get hooked,” she said. “So if we take a couple of sources and limit how often we are spending consuming news, it’s just a little bit easier for our world to feel bigger than the headlines.”
Plan simple things to look forward to.
Espada said she counsels all her patients to intentionally incorporate “simple, enjoyable” moments into their daily routine, whether that’s brewing a favorite tea or reading a book. Another key component of that is to continue to make social support a priority.
“Regardless of where we are in the pandemic, continue to make social connection a priority, whether it be in person or virtual,” she added. “Being with loved ones can be a quick mood booster for folks.”
Kuckertz said the uncertainty of the pandemic has made some people feel stuck, but not having anything to look forward to can be really detrimental to mental health.
“People can feel frozen or paralyzed by the uncertainty or restrictions that are changing and that definitely contributes to depression,” Kuckertz said. “So where possible, make plans anyway, even if there’s uncertainty. Having something to look forward to is really helpful and it’s better for mental health to practice flexibility than to be frozen and not make those plans at all.”
At this stage of the pandemic, Kuckertz said “people are all over the map in terms of how much they’re affected by COVID” and watching others “being much more cautious than them or much less cautious than them can contribute to people feeling anxious or angry or becoming depressed.”
As vaccination rates go up, some readers told Boston.com that their lives have gone back to normal relatively quickly, which has helped them better cope with any mental health issues they faced earlier in the pandemic.
“Once May 2020 rolled around, we, as a family, began looking at the situation rationally and logically. I began spending more time with my extended family and my anxiety levels began to diminish,” said Kristyn from Pinehurst.
But for many people like essential workers and parents of young children, a return to normalcy isn’t yet possible. Research has shown that these groups have also been more likely to report symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts during the pandemic.
“My wife and I had our first son in July of 2020, so we were already stressed from our first baby and COVID,” said Tim from Somerville. “On top of that, I’ve been an essential worker the whole time at a grocery store. I couldn’t work from home. Luckily, my wife [has gotten] to work from home since March of 2020. I’m stressed all the time about bringing COVID home to my family.”
Kuckertz said reminding ourselves to be compassionate toward each other’s situations as the pandemic continues will, in turn, allow us to “practice self-compassion when we feel like we’re struggling or we’re not at our best or where we want to be.”
Be prepared for the twists and turns.
Brittany from Roslindale said she sometimes feels overwhelmed by not being able to predict when normalcy will return.
“This latest surge has definitely had the biggest impact on my mental health,” she said. “It finally felt like we could get back to normal activities this past summer and fall, but now this winter feels like we can’t do anything without constant anxiety over getting COVID. There is anxiety and stress over finding the right medical-grade masks. Then there is anxiety over the slightest cough or sneeze being COVID but not being able to get a test timely. All this has definitely impacted my mental health and I struggle with feeling lonely and down.”
As the pandemic goes on, Espada said more of her patients are expressing similar feelings of depression about not seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. She said she asks them to focus on questions like “what is within your control to handle? If you’re feeling frustrated, what can you do to relieve that frustration?”
“For many of my clients, what I’ve been having them do is have a mental shift of all of this. By that, I mean be prepared for the twists and turns of pandemic life,” she said. “It’s clear that there’s not one straight path out of the pandemic.”
Boston.com occasionally interacts with readers by conducting informal polls and surveys. These results should be read as an unscientific gauge of readers’ opinion.