The Tampa Bay region has seen a swell of residents seeking help for anxiety and depression spurred by the coronavirus pandemic, resulting in thousands more crisis calls, counseling appointments and psychiatry visits.
About three times the usual number of people are reporting worsened mental health because of the virus, said Dr. Glenn Currier, chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at the University of South Florida medical school. More than half said in June said their mental health has been negatively impacted, according to a poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit focused on national health issues.
The patients USF clinics served prior to the pandemic are expressing more anxiety, he said. And calls to the free, 24-hour counseling line at Crisis Center of Tampa Bay sometimes push 400 a week, double the usual amount, said director Mordecai Dixon.
BayCare Health System’s behavioral health doctors have seen about 33,000 patients since the pandemic started, added Dr. Harold Levine, director and chief medical officer over those services. That’s about three times normal in that time span.
The local demand mirrors what’s happening nationally as people grapple with the virus that has killed more than 210,000 Americans since March. It also has put millions out of work and disrupted schooling, businesses and regular routines across the country.
In a June survey, 40 percent of adults in the U.S. reported struggling with “considerably elevated adverse mental health conditions” or substance abuse, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Eleven percent had seriously considered suicide.
Young adults, racial minorities, essential workers and unpaid adult caregivers reported disproportionately worse outcomes, as well as increased substance use and suicidal thoughts, the report said. Stress has been worse for those who are single, as well as for those with less financial security.
The pandemic’s effects are magnified in Florida, a hotspot for cases where more than 700,000 people have contracted the virus and more than 15,000 have died. The state — an important battleground for a historically contentious presidential election — is also braced for hurricane season.
“We have a perfect storm of things happening,” said Currier, the USF doctor. “It’s a quadruple-whammy.”
There are five areas of life that help drive human beings, and COVID-19 has disrupted all of them, Levine explained. Health, relationships with family, relationships with friends, work and finances, and leisure all have taken different shapes.
Some people have been unemployed for months. Others have been isolated, forced to connect with loved ones virtually, if at all. Gym memberships have been canceled, friends have stopped hugging and events like concerts and weddings have been postponed.
The forced changes have made people feel more lonely, Levine said. Patients report trouble sleeping, a sense of dread and the feeling that life is never going to get better again. They have concern about themselves and others, and they worry about how the pandemic will shape the future.
“People keep losing their train of thought and wonder why,” Levine said, and it’s because mental illness affects cognition and concentration. Anxiety and depression preoccupy the brain so those affected by the disorders have less attention for other activities.
Depressed people sort of shut down and turn inward with their thoughts and feelings, Currier added. Those suffering from anxiety become hyper-vigilant, panicked and sometimes angry and violent, which could lead to harm against themselves or others.
At the crisis center, calls spiked mid-summer as people experienced loss caused by the pandemic, said Dixon, director of the nonprofit’s gateway services. Only about 25 people answer phones, so they often take several high-stress calls a day.
“It was hard enough without the extra layer of the pandemic,” Dixon said. “There are a lot of people trying to get help, and we are doing our best to get to all of them.”
The center also has referred callers to trauma counseling and talk therapy, which are the primary ways doctors say they’re treating pandemic-related mental illness. Psychotropic drugs, which affect brain function, mood and behavior, are sometimes used, but not as often.
Most appointments are being done virtually, and that’s decreased the no-show rate by at least 10 percent at BayCare, Levine said. That set up presents fewer barriers for people who might struggle to get to the doctor.
“In therapy, we have to ask, how do we adjust? How do we deal with the fact that we are afraid?” the doctor said. “We don’t know when this is going to be over, so we have to develop new rhythms.”
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