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Health & Science

For People Struggling With Mental Health, ‘Social Distancing’ Can Be More Difficult

Social distancing guidelines, recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prevent the spread of COVID-19, could cause more psychological distress on those who already suffer from mood disorders and other mental health issues.


"Everybody's depression looks different, so for some people they're sleeping too much or they're not sleeping enough," according to Leslie Taylor, assistant psychiatry professor at UT Health.

Stay-at-home orders like the one in Harris County are helping to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

But they could also be a trigger for those who are struggling with anxiety and depression, experts say.

The response to social distancing varies on the mental health concern the person is experiencing, but when it comes to depression, solitude can exacerbate issues related to mood and sleep.

"Everybody's depression looks different, so for some people they're sleeping too much or they're not sleeping enough," according to Leslie Taylor, assistant psychiatry professor at UT Health.

Support Systems

People experiencing depression can experience black-and-white thinking — a feeling that everything is all good or all bad — and seeing negative news related to the pandemic could bring down the mood even more, according to Taylor.

Taylor said that during a disaster, if people don't get the right type of support, whether it is social, health care or basic needs like shelter and food, their mental health will decline.

One method of support comes from caregivers. But Taylor emphasized that they too need to take care of themselves during this situation. If their own needs aren't met, then they can't take care of other people, she said.

Caregivers should have available resources — like numbers to call when somebody's in crisis — close to them, Taylor added.

Technology can have both positive and negative impacts on mental health, Taylor said. Social media may help people with depression feel more engaged with people. But it may be necessary to limit exposure to news related to COVID-19 to avoid being overwhelmed.

‘We Have To Give Ourselves A Break'

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America has tips for managing negative thoughts that include focusing on productivity, maintaining a prior schedule, and adopting a new, positive quarantine ritual.

One exercise Taylor recommends is to think about five things that you can see, four things that you can touch or feel, three things that you can hear, two things that you can smell and one thing that you can taste, to remain in the moment and stop thinking about the future.

During this time, some people can experience grief after missing out on life moments like prom, graduation, birthdays and weddings, and experts suggest letting those go for now.

"We have to give ourselves a break and understand that there's things going on right now we have no control over," Jonathan Stevens, chief of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Services at the Menninger Clinic, told Houston Matters host Ernie Manouse earlier this month.

Your Mental Health Could Harm Others

Concerns over mental health can also lead to an increase in domestic violence. Those who live with their abuser are now spending entire days with them. A deterioration in mental health can lead to abusers lashing out at the person they share a home with, Stevens said.

"If an abuser cannot manage their own feelings or feels the lack of control, there's a good chance they're gonna take it out on their victim," said Stevens.

The Houston Area Women's Center typically received 50 domestic violence calls per day before COVID-19. Now the center is receiving between 60 and 80 calls a day, Stevens said.

And advocates see similar patterns across the state of Texas.

Maisha Colter, CEO of Houston-based nonprofit Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse, said that the group averaged around 950 calls a day in February. On March 16, as one example, the group fielded more than 1,000.

"We are in a sanctioned isolation situation," Colter said. "For most victims, they're being told to stay home. That means staying home with their children and their abuser. Perpetrators tend to use isolation to assert power and control over their victims."

Other recent findings have shown the increase in people experiencing economic anxiety caused by COVID-19.

In general, one-third of lower-income Americans, of which 29% have experienced job or income loss due to the outbreak, are classified as a high-distress group, according to a study by Pew Research.

"People have lost their jobs, are worried about their financial position, children are out of school and parents are having to navigate not being able to appropriately homeschool their children, you have the stressers of health concerns," Gloria Terry, CEO of the Texas Council on Family Violence, told Houston Public Media.

"So when you put all of those stressors on top of an unhealthy relationship, that's a perfect storm."

Help Available

There's help available for those struggling to cope with the situation, and amid the pandemic, providers are looking for safe ways to put fewer people at risk of getting the virus.

The UT Health Trauma and Resilience Center, where Leslie Taylor serves as a clinical director, has transitioned to telemedicine appointments. She said people are enjoying the service, despite both providers and patients being skeptical about it at first.

UT Health also provides an additional support platform known as Onto Better Help, which gives people free access to a digital cognitive behavioral therapy program.

And if you need immediate help, there are people you can talk to:

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255
  • National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-7233
  • Crisis Intervention of Houston Hotline: 832-416-1177
  • Houston Area Women's Center Hotline: 713-528-2121
  • Harris Center Crisis Line: 713-970-7000 (Option One)
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