“Those anxieties and worries and negative feelings have definitely increased,” said Connie Almeida, the director of Fort Bend County Behavioral Health Services. “Anxiety and worry and stress are normal parts of life. They’re normal reactions to traumatic events, which I see this pandemic as a traumatic event. But when it persists for a long time and there’s no relief, that gets to be really concerning for people.”
Before the coronavirus outbreak, depression affected about 20%-25% of the U.S. population, while anxiety disorders affected approximately 30% of people, said Biren Patel, the managing physician of behavioral health at Kelsey-Seybold Clinic, which has locations throughout Houston.
Now, between 40%-50% of U.S. adults are experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety, he said.
“Depression and anxiety can be the biggest problems that can be exacerbated,” said Colleen Paxton, the director of clinical services at West Oaks Hospital, which provides psychiatric care in the Houston area. “Anytime there is a change in schedule, change in routine, especially in times of uncertainty, more mental health issues can arise.”
Mental health concerns
Nicole Ponce, a licensed professional counselor in Sugar Land, said her practice has been increasingly busy over the past several months.
Ponce, who specializes in trauma, individual and relational therapy, said prior to the coronavirus she would see about eight patients a week at her part-time practice. Recently, she said she has been working with up to 20 clients a week and has had to start a waitlist to accommodate the demand.
The stress and uncertainty of the pandemic are resurfacing past trauma, Ponce said.
“The trend seems to be the feeling of being out of control triggers the trauma because most traumas are created when you’re out of control,” Ponce said. “So that feeling brings it up; people have actually had flashbacks that they hadn’t had in years.”
Mental Health America is tracking the real-time effects of COVID-19 on people’s mental health, said Renae Vania Tomczak, the president and CEO for MHA of Greater Houston. The organization screened 2,108 residents in Fort Bend and Harris counties in August, a 1,217% increase from 160 in January.
Of the people screened, loneliness and social isolation, past trauma, relationship problems and the coronavirus were the main factors contributing to mental health concerns in August.
MHA data shows among participants in Fort Bend and Harris counties in August, 59% were likely experiencing moderate to severe anxiety, and 56% were likely experiencing moderate to severe depression.
Almeida said people who do not have access to social services and stability including healthy food, financial support, steady income, housing security, access to health care and social support are at risk of more severe mental health difficulties.
“All those things play a real critical role in mental wellness,” Almeida said. “And they can either be protective factors or they can be risk factors. In the situation we are in now, many of our populations, especially our lower socioeconomic status or those individuals that have already struggled, they’re even struggling more.”
While West Oaks Hospital, which treats children, adolescents and adults, has seen a decrease in admissions because of concerns over contracting the virus, people are coming in for treatment after relapsing into drug and alcohol use.
“Along with [the stress and uncertainty], there can be increased use of substances as a way to cope,” Paxton said.
Of the residents in Fort Bend and Harris counties screened by MHA in August, 83% of people likely showed an alcohol or substance use disorder.
Ponce said people who struggled with drug or alcohol addiction prior to the coronavirus pandemic need extra supports during this time.
“The problem is that people are really relying on [Alcoholics Anonymous] and [Narcotics Anonymous], those sort of meetings,” Ponce said. “With substance abuse, it’s really important to have a community to recover; you can’t really do it on your own. So the fact that it hasn’t been people that are new to substance abuse, it’s people that are relapsing because their community and their structure is gone.”
Spencer Walker, a Marine veteran who said he struggled with substance use after returning from Iraq, dedicates his time to helping other veterans through stress and trauma, legal issues, and drug and alcohol use.
“With COVID-19, of course, it has just brought many folks to the brink, especially combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse issues,” said Walker, the immediate former Fort Bend community director with MHA of Greater Houston.
Many mental health experts pointed toward social media and the 24-hour news cycle as having a negative effect on people’s mental well-being.
Almeida suggested dedicating set times every day for reading and watching the news so it does not become all-consuming.
“Information itself can be overwhelming and stressful, and so I always tell people about taking this opportunity to quiet the noise around us so we can focus,” Almeida said.
Ponce said the same is true for social media. She said putting time limits on her personal social media apps has helped her feel more positive.
“It seems like it’s gotten very negative and very news-focused on social media,” Ponce said. “People that are just logging on to it think this is most of reality; they think most people are this negative or this polarized; and really it’s just certain people that are commenting; but that’s what you see.”
Almeida said for people who are experiencing excessive worrying, hypervigilance, difficulties sleeping or other expressions of stress, it is important to be intentional about self-care.
George Patterson, the CEO of Texana Center, a nonprofit based in Richmond that provides services to people with mental illness and developmental disabilities, said people should not hesitate to reach out to the numerous organizations in the Fort Bend County area that provide counseling.
“Since COVID-19 is affecting everyone to varying degrees, we must all take care of ourselves and focus on healthy ways to cope with the stress,” Patterson said. “When the stress becomes unbearable and is affecting our ability to function, it is time to reach out for professional help.”
Nola Z. Valente contributed to this report.