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The latest spike in COVID-19 cases will likely hit Americans’ mental health — from financial stress to worries of losing loved ones — much harder this time. martin-dm/Getty Images
  • Scientists are predicting that we will experience a second wave of COVID-19 as we approach the fall and winter months.
  • Mental health experts say we may also experience a second wave of mental health issues related to the pandemic.
  • The high level of stress associated with the pandemic is making people more vulnerable to depression and anxiety.
  • It is important to recognize when you are having problems so you can seek help.
  • Taking steps to reduce your stress may reduce your risk.

As we head into fall and winter, scientists are expecting that we will experience a second wave of COVID-19 infections.

When the weather is dry and cold, it is believed that the virus will be more stable and therefore more likely to be transmitted from person to person, causing the number of infections to surge.

However, experts say we may also be approaching a second wave of mental health issues as well.

“In addition to the pandemic, the current political and racial tensions are leading to a ‘perfect storm’ in which many people are feeling threatened and/or traumatized,” said Corinna Keenmon, MD, a specialist in psychiatry and psychology at Houston Methodist.

“We know high stress levels have a negative impact on both mental and physical health, particularly when the stress is this prolonged.”

Ken Yeager, PhD, director of the Stress, Trauma, and Resilience (STAR) program at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, said there are several factors at play, depending on which age group people fall into.

In people over the age of 75, Yeager said the pandemic represents a “real and growing” risk to their health.

Also, they are losing friends and family members.

“For many the answer is, ‘I’ve had a good life,'” said Yeager, “but for others that’s not how they see it or how they are feeling at all.”

Among baby boomers, who are in the age range of 56 to 74, Yeager said the concerns are more about whether they will be able to retire.

“After all, most are going to be directly impacted by the stock market and other economic challenges.”

“The millennials and Gen X’s are looking back to the last recession and are asking if they will be able to survive this economic downturn, leading to depression and uncertainty.”

Finally, Yeager said, “Today’s teens are feeling anxiety as they look to an uncertain future.”

Yeager also pointed to the isolation that people are feeling as well as the effects of the economic downturn.

“Many have lost jobs,” he said, “while others are essential providers so they are on the front line, which comes as its own risk.”

“There is no doubt the disruption of the pandemic is widespread. Education, relationships, employment, finances, vacations, and normalcy have all been challenged,” he concluded.

Keenmon said that around 40 percent of Americans are going through depression related to the pandemic.

Young people and minorities are especially vulnerable, she explained.

In addition, older adults, especially those in nursing homes, are becoming depressed due to the isolation.

People who have lived through trauma are at increased risk as well.

Also, people who have no real safety net or financial security are vulnerable.

In addition, those who are already prone to mental illness are added risk, said Yeager.

In particular, those who tend to suffer from holiday depression and seasonal depression should keep a close eye on their symptoms since the added stress of the pandemic may exacerbate their illness.

Yeager and Keenmon had several suggestions for coping with stress and reducing our risk for depression and anxiety:

  • Build your resilience. “Find things that build positive energy for you,” said Yeager.
  • Reach out to others in kind ways. Seek “to find the good in what you are doing every day.”
  • Limit your screen time. “You’re not hearing more news. You’re just hearing the same bad news over and over,” said Yeager.
  • Engage in hobbies. Yeager suggests activities like painting, gardening, playing games, doing puzzles, and other tasks which engage your brain.
  • Understand that politics are just that. “Use your own mind to understand what your vote should be,” said Yeager. “All too often we are directed by newscasters who are telling us who or what to be fearful of. Use your own judgement.”
  • Prioritize taking care of yourself. Keenmon suggests setting up a healthy daily routine and seeking to find balance in your life.
  • Check in on your thoughts. “As humans we tend to be overly focused on what isn’t going well,” said Keenmon. “Keep a journal and spend some time reflecting on what’s good in your life or what is working well.”
  • Recognize you are not alone.“Many people are suffering right now, and you are not alone in your pain,” said Keenmon. “‘Pain shared is half the pain, and joy shared is double the joy.’ Make the time and effort to connect with those you love — even if it’s through a phone call or Zoom chat.”
  • Try starting a meditation or mindfulness practice. Keenmon suggests apps like Calm or Headspace as a good place to start.
  • Seek help if you need it. “You can find support through an online support group, or even access online psychotherapy,” said Keenmon. She also recommends the National Alliance for Mental Illness as a good place to find resources.

Keenmon pointed to the following as signs that your mental health may be impacted:

  • changes in sleeping patterns
  • changes in eating habits
  • sudden changes in activity levels, either extreme fatigue or restlessness and hyperactivity
  • reliance on alcohol or drugs to cope
  • negative thoughts
  • feeling like you are in “survival mode”
  • feedback from family and friends that they are worried about you

If you find yourself having thoughts of suicide, Yeager suggests that you seek medical assistance.

In addition, if you are feeling depressed or anxious, you should speak with your healthcare provider.

“You may need medication,” said Yeager, “but that is not the only approach.”

“Individual counseling may be a route that you find helpful,” he said.

“It is most important to let others know what you are thinking. Your family can’t help you if you are not willing to share with them your concerns.”