SARASOTA — If the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have made you anxious or depressed, you have a lot of company.
“I don’t think there’s anyone untouched by this right now,” said Terry Cassidy, executive director for Behavioral Health Services at Sarasota Memorial Hospital in a briefing Monday.
It’s not just people who were already vulnerable to mental health problems, said Jill Hazzard, SMH social services manager for Behavioral Health.
“It’s our day-to-day colleagues,” she said. “It’s our families. It’s our friends.”
And the mental health issues manifesting themselves now may just be the tip of the iceberg.
Though it may feel that we’ve been self-isolating for months, Gov. Ron Santis’ stay-at-home order only went into effect April 3. That means mental health professionals are dealing with the front edge of the acute phase of mental health problems, according to Dr. Matthew Thomas, SMH psychiatric medical director.
The long-term effects — like so much else right now — are unknown, he said. And that’s a huge contributing factor toward feelings of fear, isolation and helplessness, Cassidy said.
So is our inability to turn to many of the things that normally would be available as distractions, she said.
As a result, Hazzard said, some people are becoming isolated socially as well as physically.
“They don’t reach out to their friends, they don’t reach out to their families,” she said. “They feel that there’s nothing to communicate about.”
They may also feel shame if they’ve lost their job, she said.
Some may be self-medicating, perhaps breaking their sobriety, Cassidy said.
SMH’s emergency department has seen an increase in patients with mental health complaints, she said, including suicidal thoughts and substance abuse.
There’s also been an increase in admissions of children and adolescents to SMH’s Bayside facility, Hazzard said. Youths are feeling isolated and overwhelmed and don’t have the support of the social network they had at school.
They model adult behavior, Cassidy said, so it’s important for the grown-ups in their lives to exhibit good coping skills: set and maintain routines, get enough sleep, eat right and get some exercise.
Focusing on things that can be controlled helps alleviate concerns about things that can’t, Hazzard said.
Even something as simple as a breathing exercise can help reduce anxiety, Cassidy said. She recommends one the military teaches: Breathe in through your nose for four seconds, hold it for four seconds, breathe out for four seconds and hold for four seconds.
People suffering more acute effects — sleeplessness, loss of appetite, irritability, crying, getting stuck in negative thoughts — need to know resources are still available to them even under a stay-at-home order, Thomas said.
SMH’s mental health professionals offer counseling in person, with precautions, but can also provide it electronically, he said.
It’s particularly important that people caring for others take care of themselves first, he said.
“This is a time for us all to be mindful of the impact of our own anxieties and our own worries while we’re trying to care for and help those most in need,” he said. “The biggest piece is making sure that everyone out there is taking care of themselves.”