With the shelter-in-place order issued for Dallas on Sunday and the very similar “stay home” order now issued for Harris County, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has become even more glaringly palpable to Baytown area residents. One aspect of this pandemic that media coverage has largely ignored is the devastating effects it will have on mental health for many people, particularly the most vulnerable.
Here are some of the most obvious mental health consequences of this pandemic that we can expect:
• Anxiety and depression, exacerbated by uncertainty and reduced social contact, will almost certainly increase massively.
• Suicides, driven by feelings of hopelessness and social isolation, will likely increase significantly.
• Substance abuse, similarly driven by feelings of hopelessness and social isolation and a desire to escape, will likely increase significantly.
• Decreases in self-control will plague many, and social skills may deteriorate. Ability to plan for the future, as in any situation with high uncertainty and stress, will also be affected negatively.
• Dysfunctional behaviors of many types will entrench themselves, especially in the most vulnerable sectors of the population.
• Negative physiological consequences of stress will manifest themselves. For example, loneliness, which is certain to increase under these circumstances, appears to have a negative impact on general health roughly equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes per day.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has noted on its website at cdc.gov that stress during an infectious disease outbreak can include:
• Fear and worry about your own health and the health of your loved ones
• Changes in sleep or eating patterns
• Difficulty sleeping or concentrating
• Worsening of chronic health problems
• Increased use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs
If you are experiencing any of the above, prompt action in seeking professional help is strongly suggested.
We should note also that certain groups are at especially high risk for damage to mental health. People who may respond particularly strongly to the stress of a crisis like the current one include:
• Children and teens and anyone who is a student at any level
• People who work in industrial settings, or who do work that is intrinsically high-stress, or whose work has become more stressful recently because of ongoing circumstances
• People who are helping with the response to COVID-19, such as health care providers, or first responders, or certain volunteers.
•People who have mental health conditions, including problems with substance abuse
There are many things you can do to support yourself during this time of crisis, including the following, which are specifically recommended by the CDC:
•Take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories, including social media. Hearing about the pandemic repeatedly can be upsetting.
•Take care of your body. Take deep breaths, stretch, or meditate. Try to eat healthy, well-balanced meals, exercise regularly, get plenty of sleep, and avoid alcohol and drugs.
•Make time to unwind. Try to do some other activities you enjoy.
•Connect with others. Talk with people you trust about your concerns and how you are feeling.
Simple self-help approaches, however, are not always sufficient. Those who need professional help with mental health issues during this pandemic should not hesitate to seek it.
People in the described higher-risk groups should be especially proactive about seeking intervention.
Here in Baytown, CAN Behavior Health, located at 401 W. Texas Avenue and available by phone at 281- 427-4226, is a major community resource, partnered with Houston Methodist, Lee College, Goose CISD, and other prominent institutions, with Dr. Mary Hewitt as its medical director. You are urged to call, and to remember that timely help can head off consequences that could otherwise become disastrous. Help is very much available, and all who can benefit from it should take advantage of this fact.
John Havenar is founder and president of Cease Addiction Now.