The price of isolation

Photo by Jeswin Thomas

By Ellen Braunstein

As the pandemic wears on, the emotional challenges are sending more people to mental health specialists than ever before, clinicians say.

Area therapists are seeing more people with generalized anxiety and depression who have never had mental health issues. They’re hearing about prolonged fear leading to anger and stress over the extreme disruption of normal daily life.

“People are finding that the isolation—the lack of touch as, one client described—is causing anxiety,” said Susan Webb, a clinical social worker who practices in Silver Spring. “There are low levels of depression for people who don’t suffer from depression and don’t have any situational experiences outside of the pandemic.”

Anxiety is on the rise for a number of reasons, said Jen Udler, a clinical social worker with Positive Strides Therapy in Potomac. “People are anxious, of course, about getting COVID. There’s also anxiousness about social situations and returning to a normal social scene whether that is school or work.”

Activity keeps depression at bay, said Brianna Sanders, a professional counselor in Silver Spring. “People are unable to go out and do the things that they usually do, which distract from mental health issues that were below the surface. It’s very uncomfortable and disorienting for people because they thought they were OK.”

Isolation has taken its toll on mental health, said Brian Corrado, a clinical psychologist who owns Bethesda Group Psychological Services. “If you want to create conditions to feel depressed, you would isolate someone and take away access to a lot of their favorite activities. People want connection.”

Mood changes have made people turn inward and not be as involved in life, Udler said. “It can be depressing for some people who prefer to be out and about.”

For some, the vaccine promised an end to the pandemic and relief from physical separation. But the reality has been the opposite with the emergence of new variants and people refusing to get vaccinated.

“I think it really set back a lot of people emotionally and mentally,” said Laila El-Asmar, a clinical social worker in Bethesda. “It’s like the anxiety of the unknown. Is this ever going to end? We get hit with Omicron and ask how much longer?”

With the vaccine, “there was so much hope that was brought about which we really needed,” said Dr. Harita Raja, a psychiatrist and director of Bethesda Women’s Mental Health Center. “We need hope to survive and to have a lessening of anxiety. We have to believe there is something that we can look forward to. We sort of lost that feeling of having control over our lives.”

Dr. Raja sees different kinds of grief in her practice. “There’s the grief of losing people during the pandemic, but also the grief of losing one’s identity as they’re in different roles now and have different social burdens.”

“It’s hard for everyone—elderly people who want to make the most of their golden years,” Corrado said. “It’s hard for college students who are isolated in their rooms.”

The good news is that therapy is becoming more accessible to people through online and phone sessions.

On the flip side, the demand is so great that some therapists are turning people away. And the pandemic is taking its toll on therapists’ mental health.

“Our job is to instill hope and try to be there for the client and it’s easy in this environment to get burnout,” Corrado said.

Aside from counseling sessions, professionals offered their advice on ways to look after your mental health during the pandemic.

“You should do whatever you can to combat isolation,” said Mark Bottinick, a clinical social worker in Silver Spring. “Find a way to stay connected within the context of your precautionary regime.”

Bottinick added, “Be mindful of your consumption of news, particularly bad news. You can overdose watching it.”

“A go-to for stress reduction is mindfulness meditation,” Webb said. “I encourage people who are isolated to do things like join Meetup groups. The activities can be outside.”

Udler recommends getting a good night’s sleep (eight or nine hours) and sticking to a sleep schedule. “With the change of routines, our sleep has definitely been impacted.”

Also recommended is exercise every day, even if it’s a 30-minute walk, Udler said. “Eat healthy and have a healthy outlet for your stress.”

Corrado suggests staying connected to others at a distance, Zoom or on the phone. “And, of course, reach out for help from a therapist or from loved ones and talk about what you’ve been experiencing.”


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