Mental health professionals say they have seen an increase in depression, anxiety and grief – pandemic impacts that are unlikely to be resolved even when restrictions on daily life are lifted.
A year after Colorado’s first COVID-19 case, vaccines offer some hope and relief from the mental impacts of the pandemic. But mental health professionals say impacts such as trauma and death tied to COVID-19 might take years to process. They are weighing the possibility of a grief or mental health pandemic.
“You can’t really process trauma while you’re in trauma,” said Judy Austin, director of the Grief Center of Southwest Colorado. “From a grief counselor perspective, we haven’t seen at all what we’re going to see.”
At the Grief Center, the number of therapy referrals has more than doubled, Austin said. For every person who has died with COVID-19 in the United States, about nine close relatives are impacted, according to 2020 research from Pennsylvania State University and other institutions. That means 4.6 million people are grieving the 515,000 Americans who have died with the disease.
“I think, at some level, everyone is grieving. We’re grieving the loss of life as we know it,” Austin said. “That’s not to be underestimated either.”
With the vaccine available, some clients at the Grief Center have hope for the future – particularly for connecting with others. But some clients aren’t ready, feeling hope might not become a reality, Austin said.
One positive: Media, political leaders and national figures are talking about grief. Advocates are calling for a White House office of bereavement care, which could look at policies like the number of bereavement days allowed by workplaces.
“I’m extremely hopeful that people are seeing grief and how grief is processed as a necessary component to good mental health,” Austin said. “This is a conversation that really is new.”
Hillary Wolfe, a child therapist with La Plata Family Counseling, said children have shown more anxiety and depression over the past year.
Her elementary-age clients experienced isolation and missed out on social learning during an important developmental stage.
“I just wonder, what’s going to be the repercussions of that? I think it’s hard to say,” Wolfe said. “It’s a year and a half of a kid’s life missing out on socialization.”
From ages 10 to 13, children are at a developmental stage in which friends are their whole world – but they are too young to get themselves to their friends’ houses.
“School being open again has been tremendously helpful for that middle school-age range,” Wolfe said. “I’ve seen their anxiety and depression really lessen.”
High school students have been better able to maintain social connections, but online schooling has increased their stress level.
“We’re just hitting the tip of the iceberg with all the mental health issues this pandemic has caused,” she said.
The older adults receiving therapy from Sandra Eisemann, a Durango-based therapist, have also felt more isolated.
Most of her clients are 50 and older. They have taken a cautious approach to handling the pandemic since the beginning – wearing masks, avoiding gatherings, maintaining social distancing. Feelings of sadness and depression often increased, Eisemann said.
“It was that initial shock of having to live your life so differently – under conditions of danger,” she said. “We’re talking about people dying.”
With vaccines available, there is a growing sense of hope, but it’s tempered by the fact that some family members and friends have not received the vaccine yet. That leads to some frustration and impatience, she said.
One tip: Get out and exercise, particularly as the weather improves.
“As we look to the future and see some change out there, I think even the patients with diagnosable clinical depression will begin to feel better because they won’t be as worried,” Eisemann said.