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A Looming Mental Health Crisis From Forced Isolation of COVID-19 Pandemic?

April 19, 2020

Social distancing and stay-at-home guidelines are needed to slow the spread of the deadly COVID-19 virus, but Hartford HealthCare behavioral health experts predict it could spark a mental health crisis that lingers well after the pandemic ends.

In an appearance on the podcast “Healthy Rounds,”  Dr. James O’Dea, vice president of operations at Hartford HealthCare’s  Behavioral Health Network, expressed concern about a surge in mental health needs.

“On other side … we’ll find such instability in society – economic distress, social distress, a level of burnout among healthcare professionals,” Dr. O’Dea said. “People (are) dealing with these issues but probably not in most adaptive and constructive way. We have to be prepared for the emotional impact of what’s happening. People are going to need care.”

The pandemic, he said, has caused increases in domestic violence and child abuse as people work in cramped quarters without some of the usual tools to decompress, such as sending children to school. Resources who might ordinarily spot warning signs of abuse, like teachers, are lost to the required pandemic changes.

Dr. John Santopietro, Behavioral Health Network physician-in-chief, called the loss of jobs in an uncertain economy, missing events such as graduations and birthdays, and losing time with loved ones “a perfect storm of psychological trauma.

“We have not seen this in our lifetimes,” Dr. Santopietro noted, adding that even 9/11 had a “defined duration” for most people. “COVID-19 is going on and on. There is daily uncertainty and we are left without our most important coping mechanism: the ability to be with each other.”

Forced isolation, both men agree, will likely have lingering effects on people’s mental health, and Dr. Santopietro predicted it will cause post-traumatic stress syndrome in some.

“The whole globe is experiencing ongoing trauma together,” he said, mentioning new research into COVID-19’s psychological impact.

It is normal, Dr. O’Dea added, to feel a sense of loss as isolation strips us of our regular routines and socialization options. He suggested building new structure and routines that allow you to manage stress from the pandemic in a way that’s productive instead of damaging.

“It challenges us to think ‘How can I do things differently?’ or ‘How have I been resilient in the past?’ Remind yourself that you’ve been through difficult circumstances before. What are some of the coping strategies you relied on?” he said.

We need to focus on facts, not fear, and think about preparation not panic.

“What are the things we can do that are within our control? How do I remind myself of my strengths and resources?” Dr. O’Dea urged.

To schedule mental health or substance abuse services, including virtual health visits, contact your existing provider or the Behavioral Health Network “warm line” at 888.984.2408. Leave a message and you will receive a call back.