Pandemic breeds mental health challenges, particularly for youngsters

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  • Rachel Lynch of Northampton is a licensed mental health counselor who does telehealth out of the home office she shares with her one-year-old cat, Blue. Since the start of the pandemic, Lynch has moved, changed jobs, adopted Blue, and also adopted a dog. Photographed on Friday, March 5, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Rachel Lynch of Northampton is a licensed mental health counselor who does telehealth out of the home office she shares with her 1-year-old cat, Blue. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Ian Sax of Northampton, seen early this month, has started a regular Zoom call he calls the Western Mass Emotional Support Group, where anyone can come talk about how they are feeling and support each other. STAFF PHOTOKEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 3/22/2021 11:36:23 AM

Editor’s note:This story is part of a weeklong series marking the one-year anniversary of the COVID 19 pandemic.

NORTHAMPTON — Rachel Lynch, a licensed mental health counselor in Northampton, has been hearing the same phrases come up in her therapy sessions recently.

“Just in the past month or two I have been hearing more sort of pandemic burnout,” she said in early March. “The words I keep hearing are: ‘I have nothing to look forward to. It feels like every day is the exact same.’”

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on mental health. In April, May and June 2020, anxiety and depression symptoms “increased considerably” in the U.S. compared to that period in 2019, according to a report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In June, 40% of more than 5,000 people surveyed said they were struggling with mental health or substance use.

“Younger adults, racial/ethnic minorities, essential workers, and unpaid adult caregivers reported having experienced disproportionately worse mental health outcomes, increased substance use, and elevated suicidal ideation,” the CDC report reads.

“There is for sure an uptick in mental health challenges, again, I would say, both from what I’m seeing in my professional life and personal life — just so many people really struggling,” Lynch said. “Everything is sort of exacerbated by the pandemic. That’s the thread throughout every single person I’m seeing. These problems were already happening and now we’re living in a global pandemic.”

That’s true for Ian Sax, a 27-year-old Northampton resident. Before the pandemic, he struggled with anxiety.

“My anxiety has gotten ten times worse,” he said, adding that he’s also had some issues with depression. “Especially going into the winter.”

Before the pandemic, he worked as a school lunch and recess monitor at a city elementary school and volunteered coaching youth sports.

“I unfortunately lost all of that,” he said.

“The lack of social interaction and not being able to see people has been a big-time factor of my decline of my mental health during the pandemic,” Sax said.

Recently, he was hospitalized for a week for anxiety and depression.

“I don’t know yet if I’m doing better or not,” he said in early March. “I think I need to get past the winter months.”

Now, he’s seeing a therapist every week for cognitive behavioral therapy, and coming up with other ways to support himself and others.

“I struggle with anxiety, and I noticed a lot of other people who are struggling,” he said.

So, a few months ago, he started a regular Zoom call he publicizes on Facebook where anyone can come talk about how they are feeling and support each other.

“I just called it the Western Mass Emotional Support Group,” he said. “I think the most helpful thing for me is trying to connect with other people … and realize I’m not the only one struggling and that others are struggling as well.”

In mid-March, Sax said the warmer weather had been helpful, and Lynch said she saw a similar trend with her clients. “I have noticed that a lot of my clients seem to be starting to feel a little better in recent weeks with the promise of warmer weather,” she wrote in a follow-up email.

Concerns about the future

Sarah Goff, an associate professor in the UMass School of Public Health and Health Sciences, worked with her students to do qualitative interviews of people early in the pandemic.

“Even as early as January (2020), I was feeling like, this is going to be something that we’ve never seen before and hopefully never see again. Part of me wanted to capture the early days as part of documenting what was happening when it was really kind of mayhem,” she said.

One group interviewed was college students, mostly from Massachusetts.

“There were a number of stories in these narratives about anxiety,” she said. “There was a real increase in anxiety. There were a lot of concerns about the future.”

Several papers are in the works based on the research she and her students did, she said. Next, she’d like to see a study on access. “I haven’t seen that much about access to services, so I know that historically it’s pretty hard to get in to see a therapist,” she said.

Clinical & Support Options, a behavioral and mental health agency based in Northampton, has also seen a rise in mental health issues, said Karin Jeffers, the agency’s president and CEO.

“In the crisis services, we’ve really seen an uptick in people we haven’t seen before go into crisis that need immediate stabilization,” she said.

The agency has also had an increase in outpatient referrals. CSO is seeing people with depression and anxiety.

“The social isolation has been huge,” Jeffers said. “That’s one of the things we’re seeing, especially in kids. They’ve lost their social networks. They’ve lost their school networks.”

Dr. Jonathan Schwab, medical director at Northampton Area Pediatrics, also has noticed an impact on children.

He’s seen “a huge increase” in issues such as depression. Aside from preschool-age children, he’s seeing it in all age groups.

“We see it across the board,” he said. For children, a year is “a huge percentage” of their lives. “They don’t have the perspective an adult might have,” he said. And, he added, “they don’t have the ability to reach out to resources the way you and I might be able to.”

Dr. Kate Atkinson, a family physician at Atkinson Family Practice, shared similar thoughts.

“In my 22 years of practice I have never experienced so many young people with such severe mental health issues, especially teens and especially teen girls. There has been cutting, suicidality, depression, eating disorders and anxiety to the point of needing hospital admission, multiple times!” Atkinson wrote in an email in late February.

“What has been most striking is that I have really only seen this severity in the kids from Amherst schools and not from patients in Belchertown where school has been in person 2 days a week most of the year in a hybrid program. My interpretation is that teen girls, especially, need the direct social contact as part of their developmental needs,” she wrote.

“Certainly there are some kids who have actually done better with remote schooling but the suffering we have seen in our office of young people in remote schooling has been unprecedented.”

Lynch, the mental health counselor, encourages people to show compassion for themselves and find ways to care for themselves amid the pandemic. And finding ways to connect with people is key.

“Although I think that has been the hot tip of the year,” she said. “Just finding ways to do that and finding activities to do with people over video chat. Sometimes it can be really overwhelming to do a video chat with somebody just to talk.”

Instead, she recommends trying to do an activity together, like cooking, playing a game, or doing a hobby like knitting.

Schwab urged anyone having problems to reach out to a health care provider.

“One of my concerns is that people are not reaching out for help because they are afraid … of exposing other people or being exposed to other people and therefore are suffering on their own at home,” Schwab said. “One thing I always want people to know is that there are people out here to help.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.

Help is available for those struggling with thoughts of suicide, including the Samaritans Statewide Hotline, which can be reached by phone or text message at 877-870-4673; and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Other crisis hotlines with various specializations are available at mass.gov/service-details/crisis-hotlines.




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