Depression and anxiety rising across the board, to the point where around 40% of the population is showing symptoms, says clinical psychologist at St. Joe’s
By Chris Motola
Q: The past two years have caused an upheaval in a lot of people’s lives. What kind of impact are you seeing on mental health due to the pandemic, the restrictions that have attempted to address it, and the resulting social climate?
A: As everyone says, these are unprecedented times and, unfortunately, what we’re seeing in the behavioral health field are upticks in the percentages of people who are endorsing symptoms of depression and anxiety. We’re seeing more and more people seeking treatment who have never done so before. We’re especially seeing it from adolescent and early adulthood groups.
Q: I imagine they’re a group that’s had their lives disrupted more than most. Many haven’t been able to attend school in person consistently or have what we might consider normal childhood interactions.
A: I think there are a couple contributing factors here. Developmentally, it’s an age group where socialization and forming peer relationships are very critical. Probably even more so than at any other stage of development. To your point, they’ve really been halted in how much time they’ve been able to spend socializing with their peers and doing typical activities and events. The second contributing factor is that, because of that, more and more people within those age ranges have been turning to technology and social media for company, companionship, entertainment and distraction. Unfortunately one of the things we know about engaging with electronics on this level, particularly social media, is that it also tends to increase symptoms of depression and anxiety. So I think, unfortunately, people are getting hurt from both angles there.
Q: Do you think we’re adequately grappling with the mental, emotional and social costs of our COVID-19 policies? Are people doing cost-benefit analysis on it or are they largely ignoring the costs?
A: I think people are at different stages along that continuum. I think there are risks and benefits in either direction and, unfortunately, it’s been a bit of a moving target. As we’ve learned more and more about the virus, people’s opinions have changed. I think most people are doing that best that they can and making the choices that they feel are most appropriate for themselves and their families, their neighbors. But I think people’s perspectives, their knowledge tends to be different. Your idea of what’s best and healthiest for your family may look different than what I think is best for mine.
Q: Aside from adolescents and young adults, who is most vulnerable to developing mental health issues at a time like this?
A: Honestly? Just about everyone. We’ve seen rates of depression and anxiety rise across the board, to the point where around 40% of the population is endorsing symptoms of depression and anxiety. I think there was a time when people viewed mental health and behavioral issues in a certain light, and there was a lot of stigma around it. I think the last year and a half has really brought to light how it’s something that can impact anybody.
Q: That’s a huge number, 40%. What was it prior to the pandemic?
A: Prior to coronavirus, the proportion of people endorsing symptoms of anxiety and depression was a little under 30%. I think the numbers were highest last winter, which shouldn’t be that surprising, especially in climates like ours. It’s been a pretty marked jump in the number of people showing symptoms and seeking treatment.
Q: We’re about to head into winter again with the virus still around. What can people do to stay mentally healthy?
A: To the degree that you can do so safely, social interaction is very important, especially if you can be with people physically. Human beings are social creatures, so depriving ourselves of that can be setting ourselves up for failure. I think there’s also really strong evidence for the impact of physical activity and exercise on behavioral health and reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression. So I’d advise people to stay active and engage in activities that are pleasurable to them, whether that’s coming up with new mentally stimulating hobbies or interests that they can do in a safe way.
Q: How do you go about helping people who seek treatment?
A: There are some strong therapeutic interventions that can be used to target depression and anxiety. There are a lot of different theories and frameworks, but I do a lot of cognitive behavioral therapy with my patients, which is really helping patients to look at the way they’re thinking about things, the actions and behaviors, and the relationship those have with how they’re feeling. It helps to raise awareness of those things and what we’re doing on a daily basis. It can really go a long way in terms of symptom reduction. And, of course, for some of my patients the addition of a low dose of medication can be helpful.
Q: Do you see more of a role for behavioral health in developing or tweaking public policies during crises like these?
A: I think so. I think we’ve made a lot of progress toward reducing the stigma around mental health issues, but we could always do better, helping people seek help earlier. We do know that long-term behavioral health conditions can have a negative impact not only in terms of people’s emotional health, but there physical health. There definitely have been a lot of negative impacts from COVID, but I think we’re seeing more people willing to acknowledge their own symptoms and seek treatment.
Q: Do you anticipate any long-term impacts from this event?
A: It’s too early to have any longitudinal data. While I think humans are pretty resilient, traumatic, life-altering experiences can take an impact on someone. It takes an impact in terms of how they view themselves, their world and how safe or not they feel. We do know that when people are consumed with more immediate issues, a lot of our higher order functioning gets put on the back burner and we kind of go into a state of fight or flight. So we’ll likely see impacts down the road on both an individual and societal level.
Name: Monique W. Winnett, Psy. D.
Position: Clinical psychologist at St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center
Education: University of Hartford
Affiliations: St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center
Organizations: American Psychological Association
Family: Husband, three children
Hobbies: Exercising, travel