Local therapists say some spirits are lifting with COVID-19 restrictions, but note hesitancy is OK
Some COVID-19 restrictions are lifting in Santa Barbara County, and according to local mental health care providers, so are some people’s spirits, just in time for Mental Health Awareness Month.
Others, though, are feeling anxious at the thought of returning to normal life.
Many have become comfortable with their pandemic routines, and disruption of those routines on top of the uncertainty of the pandemic’s future path could very well be stressors in many residents’ lives.
“I’m absolutely convinced that people are happy to be able to get out and do things, but I think there’s also some fear of, ‘Is it safe to return to normal? And should we be?’ ” Annmarie Cameron, CEO of the Santa Barbara Mental Wellness Center, told the News-Press. “Whether sites are opening or schools are going to go back are still questions people don’t know the answers to.
“What resolves anxiety in people is the ability to plan and know what your options are and to make informed choices, and we still don’t have enough information to feel like we can do that for ourselves.”
A CDC report surveyed adults across the U.S. in late June of 2020, and 31% of respondents reported symptoms of anxiety or depression; 13% reported having started or increased substance use; 26% reported stress-related symptoms; and 11% reported having serious thoughts of suicide in the past 30 days.
These numbers nearly double the rates expected before the pandemic, and the study showed that risk factors for reporting anxiety symptoms or suicidal ideation included food insufficiency, financial concerns and loneliness.
The CEO of the Wellness Center added that the pressure to return to the pace of pre-pandemic life, which may have been 100 miles an hour for some people, could be a turnoff for introverts or people who prefer the slower pace of working from home or staying in at night. Plus, community members are still feeling the impacts of the isolation, and many are feeling the impacts still of contracting the virus.
“For some, on a range from being on ventilators to just the shock of being positive (for COVID-19) or losing taste or smell, the impact of any kind of traumatic event differs from person to person,” Suzanne Grimmesey, spokesperson for the county’s Department of Behavioral Wellness, told the News-Press.
“What’s most important for the impact for the longer term has to do with their experience of the event. If somebody had developed those symptoms and during it they were surrounded by support and information and guidance, that’s going to be very different than someone who had the exact same experience, but maybe they’re an older adult living isolated.”
Dr. Barton Goldsmith, an award-winning psychotherapist and News-Press columnist, said he himself is still feeling the impacts of the virus.
“Having personally experienced the loss of taste and smell, that really changes your outlook on life,” he told the News-Press. “It really does eliminate an area of joy and satisfaction. That being said, it’s getting better over time and hopefully that will be the case with most people, but that’s a tough thing to give up.”
According to Dr. Paul Erickson, the medical director for psychiatry and addiction medicine at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, about a quarter to a third of COVID survivors develop “Long COVID” — mental health symptoms that last weeks, sometimes months.
“Anxiety and depression are the most common symptoms,” Dr. Erickson told the News-Press. “A small number of Long COVID patients develop new psychotic symptoms such as auditory hallucinations, paranoia and delusions, even with no history of mental illness. The course of illness for Long COVID patients and recovery is not well understood. Many describe severe fatigue, ‘brain fog,’ and other physical symptoms in addition to anxiety and depression.”
The doctor said he’s seen a few common themes over the course of the pandemic: individuals with pre-existing mental health conditions being deeply affected by symptoms; alcohol and substance users relapsing; people feeling sadness and grief unable to see loved ones in person; and lack of social support, daily structure and routine leading to boredom, frustration and sometimes anxiety and depression, among many others.
“Throughout the pandemic, frontline healthcare workers and essential workers have practiced extra precautions to protect against COVID, have endured chronic stress and in some cases have developed post-traumatic stress disorder,” Dr. Erickson said. “It’s important to remember, though, that human beings are resilient, and most people are recovered or will recover from these temporary mental health symptoms.”
Dr. Goldsmith said he went from only seeing a handful of clients pre-pandemic to being fully booked up since then, and 10% of his clients are COVID long haulers, still suffering from impacts after a long bout of the virus. He recently saw his first client back in person, but said many still prefer virtual therapy sessions.
“I think that we’re going through another year of this, and it’s not really going to be over. Even though it‘s over, it’s not over. People are listening to what’s going on in the world now,” Mr. Goldsmith said. “There’s so many things to worry about that overall, people are saying, ‘I can’t contain this all myself. I can’t hold all of this in myself. I need to see a therapist,’ and that’s OK to see a therapist because it’s acceptable now, finally.”
However, the experts recommended a gradual return to ordinary life at a pace individuals choose themselves, and for those eager to get back to traveling and in-person socializing — flexibility.
“Nobody has to rush back to things just because we’re moving in that direction,” Ms. Grimmesey said. “People can take it slow, and people should continue to exercise self care and get support when needed … We’re building resiliency through this, as we have before. I’m hopeful our end result is going to be an even stronger community, but people have definitely been impacted.”
Ms. Cameron said spirits will lift as more barriers to connections between friends and family are removed.
But while people will take advantage of those lifted barriers and begin traveling and making plans again, they have to recognize that circumstances could still change and “not everything is completely predictable still,” Ms. Cameron said.
“Trust your gut. If something doesn’t feel right, trust yourself that you know what you need,” she said. “It’s OK to tell people, ‘I’m not ready’ or ‘I don’t feel up to it yet.’”
Dr. Goldsmith said he’s had clients who have decided to isolate, live off their savings and just get unemployment benefits. He said those clients are “doing all right, but they’re very unhappy.”
“My first advice to anybody who’s not working right now is go back to work,” the therapist said. “Remotely, if you’re scared of people, but go back to work. If you don’t have a purpose, it is more likely that you will become depressed and anxious.
“Was work maybe a pain in the butt? Yes, but it’s only eight hours a day, and you’ve got 24 to fill.”