If you are thinking about harming yourself, call the National Suicide Hotline at 800-273-8255 or text NAMI to 741-741 for free crisis counseling. Veterans can call the Veterans Crisis Line at at 800-273-8255 ext. 1 or text 838255. For local referrals, call the National Mental Health Alliance of Sarasota and Manatee counties at (800) 950-NAMI.
The months-long COVID-19 pandemic, and all of the uncertainty that has come with it, has exacted a heavy toll on the mental health of many across Manatee County.
Cases of people suffering from depression and anxiety, and seeking help for mental health issues, have risen dramatically since the pandemic began in March. That’s just those who have reached out and what worries mental health professionals is the number of people who are trying to deal with the stresses of today’s environment on their own.
Sarah Lawrence is a mother of twin young girls and she knows a thing or two about dealing with life on her own, but the pandemic has certainly enhanced feelings of isolation.
“(The pandemic) created a lot of obstacles on a situation that is difficult enough,” Lawrence said.
She works at a car dealership and is fortunate to be able to schedule hours around taking care of her two 9-year-old girls, but when schools shut down early in the pandemic, living paycheck to paycheck became just trying to survive.
“I haven’t been able to get full time hours through this whole thing,” she said. “If I miss that time, I lose out on a paycheck. One of my daughters had to be quarantined for two weeks when a positive case showed up her at school, so I didn’t work for those two weeks.”
The fear of losing her home and ability to care for her children has created a lot of uncertainty for Lawrence, even at times, “making me feel like a bad mom,” she said.
“With the anxiety of everything so high, it’s depressing,” Lawrence said. “There’s not a lot to enjoy, honestly. It’s difficult. It’s been a very overwhelming year to say the least. It’s very depressing and I can speak for a lot of people I know who are struggling with depression and I don’t know how they are getting through all this.”
Lawrence certainly isn’t alone, as global studies have shown about 37.5% of respondents indicated a dramatic increase in depression and anxiety through the pandemic. Those numbers also have spiked in the area, according to local mental health professionals.
“The biggest increase we’ve seen this year compared to last year in numbers are cases of depression and suicidal attempts, more so than suicidal idealization due to social isolation, loneliness and financial struggles,” said Misti Schroeder, director of business development and a licensed therapist at Suncoast Behavioral Center.
“What we’ve seen is a sense of hopelessness and uncertainty, which leads to the depression and anxiety,” she said.
Although Florida has had fewer lockdowns than other states and countries, the uncertainty of a prolonged pandemic has forced parents, businesses and institutions to constantly adapt to the unknown, according to Melissa Larkin-Skinner, regional CEO for Centerstone, which provides behavioral and substance abuse services in Bradenton.
“As much criticism as we get for being open, Florida has been luckier than others,” Larkin-Skinner said. “But it’s still an environment of constantly having to adapt to what we learn.”
Larkin-Skinner said that since the pandemic began, Centerstone has seen a 30% iincrease in people seeking help for depression and anxiety.
“Every statistic is going in the wrong direction,” Larkin-Skinner said. “One in four young people have said they thought about suicide in the past 30 days. The whole thing about the pandemic and the isolation that comes with it is the uncertainty. Humans don’t like that. There’s a lot of fear that comes with uncertainty and it’s certainly hard on the kids, which we’ve seen an increase of for in-patient services.”
Larkin-Skinner said pediatric mental health cases have begun to drop off since Christmas, however, “And that’s a good sign.”
It’s about the only statistic that is showing signs of improving. Schroeder said incidents of self-harming behavior like people “cutting” themselves have remained consistent since the start of the pandemic and is showing no signs of decline from what she’s seeing.
“I can only speculate why,” Larkin-Skinner said. “Suicide attempts are up but suicide idealization is down and that’s not typical. Typically they both increase together.”
The number of suicides Manatee County dropped in 2020, compared to 2019, but there were some months amid the pandemic that saw spikes.
According to the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, there were 48 suicides in the county in 2020, compared to 58 a year earlier, but there were spikes in April, July, August and November of last year.
Domestic violence cases also saw spikes early in the pandemic, with a general increase of about 60% in March of 2020, but they dropped dramatically in April and May before spiking again in June and August.
Palmetto police reported about 20 more domestic disturbance calls in 2020 than in 2019.
Substance abuse on the rise
With an increase in depression and anxiety, substance abuse also is on the rise locally. According to the Bradenton Police Department, there were 22 fatal overdoses within the city limits last year, 58% more than in 2019.
“When coping skills are challenged, substance abuse becomes a way to escape, and that was especially true in the beginning of the pandemic when we couldn’t leave home and do leisure activities,” said Schroeder, of Suncoast Behavioral Center.
Larkin-Skinner, at Centerstone, said overdose deaths in Manatee County are back on the rise, especially in recent months.
“The opioid epidemic never went away,” Larkin-Skinner said. “So accidental overdoses are up again and we are seeing a combination of people in recovery who are relapsing or people who have been using all along. We made progress with the epidemic and it slowed down a little at first with COVID, but that’s because the pandemic disrupted the drug trade. Like everything else, they have found a way around it”
Larkin-Skinner said facing uncertainty for this length of time,“Is wearing people down, I think. We all thought this would be over in a couple of weeks. Everything is so disruptive and you don’t know from one day to the next what might change and that’s difficult. And then you add that to the financial burden of people losing their livelihoods and don’t have the same support system and I worry about them.”
Both Schroeder and Larkin-Skinner said it’s OK to feel the way you are feeling and you are certainly not alone. It’s how you react to those feelings that makes the difference.
“We have to look at what we can control versus what we can influence,” Larkin-Skinner said. “We can’t control the world or this pandemic, but we can influence ourselves in more positive ways.”
Schroeder said mental health is every bit as important as physical health so, “The biggest thing is to just ask for help. Don’t think it’s not severe enough to seek out help, reach out and get that answer.”
Tips for dealing with stress
Some of the top stress relievers advised specifically during the pandemic include:
- Following a routine by creating a daily schedule designed to add structure to your day.
- Continue to practice good hygiene and sleep schedule. A long shower can go a long way in making yourself feel better and gives you time and personal space to reflect.
- Eat healthy and drink plenty of water.
- Stay active by taking a walk, jog or take an online fitness class. Take the dog for a walk and use at-home exercise equipment if necessary.
- Maintain a healthy social connection by bonding with family and friends on the phone, group video chats or yes, even go the old fashioned route and write a nice long letter.
- Make yourself a self-care kit with things like word searches, inspirational quotes, favorite smelling lotions, pictures of loved ones, some favorite quick snacks, art supplies or whatever items best suited to connect all five of your senses.
- Limit COVID-19 conversations, and in today’s environment, political conversations as well. Get your information from trustworthy sources and move on with your day making it about you and your loved ones.
- Exercise self compassion by allowing yourself to feel the emotions of the situation.
- Reach out for help whether professional or just to speak with a trusted loved one. You are not alone.
- Control your exposure to the news.
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, peacehealth.org, and Yale Medicine.