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Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Mental health and the COVID conundrum

Students and mental health professionals adopt new normal caused by COVID-19

People living with mood disorders may find it hard to get out of bed in the morning. Social distancing due to COVID-19 may heighten these feelings, some say. // Illustration by Rachel Alexander

By Kaelin Bell and Christopher O’Neill

Every day, I wake up and lay in bed, mustering the energy to get up and do just one productive thing. Some days, I wish the day was over before it’s even started. I live with mood disorders and anxiety, and my own story is just one example of what people living with mental illness are experiencing during the pandemic.

Conor Mariani, a fifth-year Western student, lives with obsessive-compulsive disorder and regularly sees a psychologist who has shifted their meetings to a digital format while the pandemic continues. 

“It’s been a little tough being cooped up and being unable to see friends, so maybe a bit lonely, but I’ve been keeping busy enough,” Mariani said. “In regards to adjustments I’ve made, I’ve just been doing my best to fill my time and talk online with my friends when I can so I don’t get too lonely.”

According to the American Psychological Association, OCD is an anxiety disorder characterized by obsession in the form of recurring unwanted thoughts, ideas or sensations that may make them feel driven to complete some kind of compulsory, usually repetitive, action. Many people who live with OCD experience an intense fear of contamination or a compulsion to clean.

“In the OCD community, the response has actually been somewhat mixed. About half the people are in my camp and aren’t really worried about COVID [-19] much,” Mariani said. “The other half has been having a lot of trouble regarding contamination and their hygienic habits.”

As the COVID-19 situation continues to develop, students like first-year Reva Karnik are taking things one day at a time. 

“It’s kind of evolved over time — at first I felt awful and restless,” Kanik said. “I also felt more anxious at the start because of the uncertainty of everything, but now that it’s been about two months, I just focus on each day and week as they come and try not to think about the big picture.”

Some days are more challenging to get through than others for students like Kanik. 

“I still have off days where I feel worse than usual but I do stuff to make it more tolerable like listen to music, dance around my room, journal and stream Netflix or YouTube with my friends online,” Kanik said. “I’ve also been Zooming with my relatives in India, which makes me feel better and calmer because it reminds me that it’s not just my family that’s dealing with this. It’s easy to feel trapped.”

Like many college students across the country, Western fourth-year Zoë Cardwell had to move home as a result of the mandatory closure of campuses. 

“Living with family again has been fun at some times, but also extremely stressful at others,” Cardwell said. “I have struggled with agoraphobia in the past, and those feelings have definitely resurfaced.”

According to the American Psychological Association, agoraphobia is an anxiety disorder characterized by a fear and avoidance of places and situations that could lead to panic or embarrassment. People with agoraphobia often experience fear of public transportation, visiting busy public places such as shopping malls or even leaving the house altogether. 

“Being in an environment like Bellingham where I could control what I did and where I went was honestly so nice for my anxiety,” Cardwell said. “Coming back home, there’s a lot of pressure to push myself extremely far when I don’t feel comfortable with it.”

Bellingham professionals are working with clients to deal with changes.

“My personal experience is that my clients are doing really well,” said Melody Goddard Rhode, licensed clinical psychologist at Tree of Life in Bellingham. “They’ve been in therapy for a long time so they’ve got the muscles for this.”

Rhode said that although tragic, the pandemic has offered an unprecedented opportunity for self-reflection.

“With this global pandemic each of us in lockdown are in individual therapy, sort of having to face our own issues and our own lives,” Rhode said. “In some ways it’s a wonderful opportunity to come alive and to be more conscious of how we are living our lives and how we’re relating to each other.”

T. Christopher Portman, a Bellingham licensed clinical psychologist, discussed the changes he saw in his field due to social distancing.

“I’m getting pretty happy with the online therapy,” Portman said. “We’re having a great time talking to clients online about how to make this an optimistic opportunity rather than a pessimistic one.”

Portman said until now, insurance companies had refused to cover the cost of therapy sessions conducted remotely using software such as Zoom, or Doxy.me. He encouraged people seeking help to take advantage of this new option.

“A lot of millennials I’m seeing prefer doing things online already,” Portman said. “It’s an adaptation; humans are remarkably adaptable.”

Richard Spitzer, resident of Whatcom County and licensed clinical psychologist of 38 years, said he noticed a trend of heightened anxiety among his clients.

“The severity of the conversations is greatly magnified because of the anxiety and fears that come with the virus,” Spitzer said. “Social isolation is much more of a factor in mental health, especially for people who are very connected with families.”

Spitzer said he noticed that the elderly, in particular, were having issues adapting to the technology necessary in order to maintain contact with friends and family.

“They can’t figure out Zoom,” Spitzer said. “So, they’re pretty cut off.”

Spitzer also mentioned some concerns about the loss of certain advantages gained when conducting therapy in person.

“If someone says they quit smoking and they come into the office smelling of cigarettes, that would be a discussion point,” Spitzer said. “So much of the info that comes through the senses is not available on the video screen.”

Spitzer said that although the insurance companies have allowed billing for therapy using video platforms, challenges for low-income clients remain.

“Insurance companies have been very flexible and very helpful lately, but it still doesn’t take care of things like co-pays,” Spitzer said. “Sometimes it’s a choice between food and therapy or food and medicines.”

Spitzer said that although he had concerns, he recognized the benefits of video platforms potentially changing the landscape of his profession.

“I think a lot of therapists are actually preferring or feeling that teletherapy is sort of the next step in mental health counseling,” Spitzer said. “It also seems like people who have children at home can space out sessions so they have more time with family.”

 Spitzer said one of the advantages he personally experienced was not having to commute to the office.

“I have more time to do charting and return phone calls,” Spitzer said. “So this may really be a shift in how the field and how therapy is done in the future.”

According to Anne Marie Theiler, interim director of the WWU Counseling Center, more students will likely seek support as the situation develops.

“Students who are reaching out to us include those who have never utilized counseling, but are feeling overwhelmed, depressed or stressed. We are also hearing from students who were already dealing with emotional or mental health issues, and who are now finding symptoms have worsened due to the stress of the pandemic crisis.”

Theiler urges students in need of consultation to refer to Western’s counseling site for consultations by phone or follow-up counseling available via video conference. The counseling center has also made additional outreach activities and workshops available online in accordance with social distancing.

On the hardest days, I like to remember that everything comes to an end, even the worst situations. I make a few cups of coffee, sit outside and paint or call my mom. I encourage you, no matter how you’re faring during this pandemic, to take a moment to show yourself some tenderness. Even on the hard days, look out for yourself.

Resources if you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal thoughts

24/7 Crisis Hotline: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 

www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org

1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Crisis Text Line

Text TALK to 741-741 to text with a trained crisis counselor from the Crisis Text Line for free, 24/7

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