Pandemic leads to more anxiety in SB County
The social distancing, stay-at-home orders and isolation that accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic not only disrupted daily life.
They also increased the amount of anxiety and depression felt by many individuals.
During the pandemic, four in 10 adults in the U.S. reported symptoms of anxiety and depression, according to a Household Pulse Survey completed by the U.S. Census Bureau. This marks a stark shift from data the first half of 2019, when one in 10 adults reported symptoms, according to a National Health Interview Survey.
The national rise in anxiety and depression during the pandemic even had implications in Santa Barbara County, where health care providers reported an increase in the number of emergency room patients and psychiatric ward patients reporting symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Dr. Paul Erickson, the medical director and chair of psychiatry and chemical dependency services at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, told the News-Press that there’s been an increase in the number of emergency room patients coming to the hospital for help with mental health and substance abuse problems related to the impacts of COVID-19.
“I think the social isolation, the being at home, having a lot of time on people’s hands, missing the structure and routine and the social contact at work — I think all of those things have affected people so much that we have seen people who have come into the hospital and saying they have more anxiety and depression,” Dr. Erickson told the News-Press
While more people are voluntarily coming to the Emergency Department for mental health and substance abuse issues, Dr. Erickson said Cottage Hospital has also seen an increase in the number of people involuntarily hospitalized with a 5150, a medical designation.
When a 5150 occurs, a person is involuntarily hospitalized for posing a risk to themselves or others. When this happens, a person assigned a 5150 is taken into custody for a period of up to 72 hours for psychiatric assessment, evaluation and crisis intervention, or they are placed in a treatment facility, according to California law.
According to Dr. Erickson, the number of 5150 patients doubled at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital between May 2020 and May 2021.
In addition, the length of time a patient spent in the Emergency Department increased during the COVID-19 crisis. Dr. Erickson said this was largely because social distancing requirements only allowed one bed per room when normally two beds would be placed in a room.
With more people seeking service, it became more difficult to find open psychiatric beds, and that caused extended Emergency Department stays.
“On average, a year ago, we would be able to have a patient be in the Emergency Department about 16 hours before they got to another hospital,” Dr. Erickson said. “As of this May, it’s gone up to 28 hours. Now those are averages, so some (patients) get to a hospital within a few hours, and others can stay two or three days or more, so there’s a wide variation of how long people stay in our Emergency Department. For some people it’s hours, and for some people it’s days.”
While there are clear increases in the number of people hospitalized for mental health issues, Dr. Erickson said it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why they are occuring. In addition to the stress of isolation and disruption of routines, Dr. Erickson said that for some people, limited access to telehealth made it more difficult to connect with service providers.
“To some extent, (patients) have less contact with their treaters, and for some people it’s either too difficult to figure out meeting on Zoom or it just doesn’t work out for them,” Dr. Erickson said. “(Patients) may also not be as adherent to the medications they were taking. I think also the stress that the lack of routine and structure and lack of social contact that every human being needs has been so disrupted by COVID, and I think that has mental health impacts as well.”
In addition to the stress of the pandemic and the social isolation, Dr. Erickson said the increase in mental health struggles could also be attributed to the loss of life.
In Santa Barbara County, 455 people died of COVID-19 leaving behind family members and friends. Dr. Erickson said the loss of loved ones is another likely reason why the rates of anxiety and depression are not only rising in the county, but across the nation.
The increased rate of anxiety and depression among clients has also been noted by the Santa Barbara County Behavioral Wellness Department.
When the pandemic first hit, the department quickly pivoted to offer telehealth services to clients, though the offices stayed open for in-person services. According to Suzanne Grimmessey, the public information officer for Behavioral Wellness, demand for outpatient services grew by a small margin during the pandemic.
“We’ve certainly seen the impact (of COVID-19) as far as the increased number of people calling in to connect (through telehealth),” she told the News-Press.
In addition to outpatient services, the Behavioral Wellness Department also has a 24/7 crisis access line, where community members can call in and receive immediate assistance when facing a crisis.
Anecdotally, Ms. Grimmessey said that a number of operators answering calls on the 24/7 crisis access line reported the calls “having greater intensity” than before the pandemic, indicating an increase in mental health crises.
As the region starts to slowly reopen, Ms. Grimmessey said Behavioral Wellness is encouraging those facing mental health struggles to take one step at a time when returning to pre-pandemic activities.
“Many people are reporting feeling some anxiety about returning to events or activities where there’s a lot of people around even though the guidance tells us it’s okay,” Ms. Grimmessey said. “There are still a lot of people feeling a lot of anxiety about that.”
She added, “We are encouraging people to understand that (with) the transition back to socialization, people will be at different places with that, and it’s completely OK. We are encouraging people to set their own pace and comfort level for returning to activities, and for those feeling anxious to get out in public in a way that feels safe for them.”
Though there may be some anxiety with the impending return to pre-pandemic life, Dr. Erickson said he believes the reopenings will be overall positive for those who have struggled with mental health issues due to the pandemic.
“I do think there’s optimism that we are getting to the end of the pandemic and the restrictions that the pandemic brought with it,” he said. “And I think overall that’s going to be positive for people’s mental health. All of the things that the pandemic brought where people were not able to see each other socially as much, normal routines were disrupted — all of those things, I think will be getting better rapidly, and I think that’s going to be better overall.”