Doctors Explain Mental Health Impact Of Shutdown

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What are the unintended consequences of locking down an economy? What competing interests should have been considered by local leaders before closing a school system? Does it make sense to direct the majority of a nation’s resources toward a single goal?

“Even for adults, there have been so many things out of our control during the coronavirus pandemic,” explained Dr. Ruth Stemberger of Severna Park, who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy. “Children will look to their parents for cues on how to handle this crisis. If we use positive strategies to handle our own fears and frustrations, our kids are more likely to do the same.”

In Maryland, there have been two deaths in the 19-and-under category as of September 1, according to www.coronavirus.maryland.gov. Across the U.S., there is further good news as fewer children have been hospitalized with COVID-19 than the seasonal flu.

As parents struggle to handle their children’s psychological and emotional needs, mental health experts have seen the pandemic's quarantine rules disrupt traditional support networks. An August study by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that young people are experiencing more suicidal thoughts during the pandemic. The National Alliance on Mental Illness HelpLine has seen a 65% increase in calls.

In July, CDC director Robert Redfield stressed the urgency of the mental health crisis when he announced, “But there has been another cost that we’ve seen, particularly in high schools. We’re seeing, sadly, far greater suicides now than we are deaths from COVID.”

Social isolation is a problem that spans numerous vulnerable communities. Recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous rely on personal relationships and group dynamics for its historic success in treating addiction.

“The last 12-step group meeting I held in-person was on March 17,” said Dr. John McClanahan of McClanahan & Associates in Arnold. “Things were shut down the next day.”

Not everyone has access to ZOOM-type services, cautioned McClanahan, whose local practice focuses on addiction and relapse prevention.

“But good old phone calls still work very well,” he said. “In times of great stress and uncertainty, the recovering community circles the wagons to help and support each other. I remember what we all did for each other following 9/11.”

Finding ways to maintain meaningful human interaction requires striking a delicate balance.

“There is no substitute for friendship,” said Dr. Mark Good of Bayshore Counseling. “Of seeing a smile and smiling back; of sitting around the table together; of laughing, singing and worshipping together.”

Furthermore, Good explained that during the pandemic, social media has taken on disproportionate significance because it is one of the few permissible outlets for social interaction.

“Computer interactions can be depersonalizing,” he explained. “When a disagreement occurs, a person’s social media image can collapse. People scramble to reverse hasty statements and redefine their image, leading to confusion, intensified disagreement and a personal crisis.”

But there are positive, purposeful steps that can be taken even under difficult circumstances, Stemberger said.

“Focus on positive activities,” she said. “Form better habits. Reduce screen time. Revamp nutritional behaviors. Schedule regular exercise. Plan daily outdoor time. Take steps to grow closer with your family.”

Whether its dependence on screens or substance abuse, mental health in the time of COVID-19 depends on relying on a power greater than ourselves, McClanahan said.

“Addiction is a holistic illness. It’s physical, emotional and spiritual,” he said. “If addiction is multifaceted then recovery and treatment must be as well.”

Establishing a stable identity is critically important.

“If I look only for the affirmation of others on social media or elsewhere, I will always be let down," Good said. "Developing a relationship with God is extremely helpful because God is the only person I can depend on that doesn’t change.”

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