When Hodari Brown noticed shoppers at a Sam’s Club stockpiling bottled water and Lysol spray a few weeks before Michigan’s first confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, anxiety sent him into fight-or-flight mode.
Brown, 35, of Redford, has post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression. Public displays of panic about the pandemic, such as shoppers emptying grocery store shelves, have exacerbated the symptoms of his mental illness.
“It creates that atmosphere for me of where I just need to leave this situation right away,” he said. “For somebody like myself, it’s creating a heightened alert. And it’s one of those things where I need to make sure I keep my anxiety in check.”
The outbreak of COVID-19 has thrust public health officials around the world into uncharted territory while shattering America’s sense of normalcy. In Michigan, officials’ attempts to slow the spread of the virus have prompted swift, and at times drastic, changes to everyday life, like the closure of all K-12 schools and widespread cancellation of public events.
Psychologists say the uncertainty of it all, coupled with the 24-hour news cycle, can take a toll on our mental health. Forty-million American adults – about 18 percent of the population – are affected by anxiety disorders each year, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Experts caution that people with mental health conditions can be especially vulnerable to stress triggered by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Patients with generalized anxiety are getting even more anxious,” said Dr. Antonia Caretto, a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Farmington Hills. “I think it’s the pandemic of hysteria that’s really affecting them.”
How to cope
As some people make light of social distancing, Anne Perry, area director of the Michigan chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said it’s an important time to check in on those who live with anxiety disorders. She encourages individuals who feel alone or overwhelmed to lean on their support groups.
“Now that schools are on break and people are going to be isolated more ... I think it’s going to be a little more serious before it gets better,” she said, referring to individuals who struggle with mental health issues. “We can use social media for good in that sense where we can kind of open up this discussion about how this is affecting our mental health.”
Keri Black has obsessive-compulsive disorder and has learned in therapy to manage it by imagining situations that would prompt obsessive thoughts and practicing “sitting with the uncertainty.” At 31, her OCD centers around fears related to her family and work. She’s planned for many scenarios, but she never imagined anything like the coronavirus pandemic.
“I really struggle with that in this situation because it’s so new. It’s not something I’ve prepared for,” said Black, who lives in the Toledo area and travels to Ann Arbor for treatment and support group meetings. “I never thought I’d have to be thinking about what happens when we run out of toilet paper because currently there is none at our local grocery store.”
The coronavirus has been a focus of almost all of Dr. Jessica Purtan Harrell’s client sessions in the past week. Harrell, a clinical psychologist in Farmington Hills who specializes in the treatment of OCD, said virus prevention presents a challenge for people who compulsively wash their hands or engage in other cleaning rituals. To those clients, she stresses the importance of not going beyond the recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“When you’re prone to anxiety, more is not better,” she said. “This is what’s so tricky. In treatment, we usually swing the pendulum the other way and prevent washing for periods of time, and we can’t do that now.”
Technology and frequent news updates can feed into people’s anxiety, said Harrell, who has heard stories of people checking the stock market every five or 10 minutes. To help temper trepidation, she recommends that people prone to anxiety limit their news intake about the coronavirus to once or twice a day, for specified periods of time.
“The constant influx of notifications on our phone keeps us so heightened. That’s a huge thing. Turn off alerts and notifications,” she said.
‘Everybody’s in the same boat’
Brown, the Redford resident, leads a peer support group through the National Alliance on Mental Illness Metro and has heard from members who’ve considered canceling their mental health appointments because of the coronavirus outbreak. He’s encouraging them to keep up with their treatment unless they’re ill.
“A setback for someone with a mental illness can be a setback for a year,” he said.
In Oakland County, public mental health network leaders are discussing telehealth treatment for Medicaid patients in light of the coronavirus outbreak. Dr. Nicole Lawson, deputy executive director and chief operations officer of the Oakland Community Health Network, said Thursday that those talks were ongoing with the local Michigan Department of Health and Human Services office. The roughly 28,000 residents served by the system include adults with a mental illness, people who have an intellectual or developmental disability, children with serious emotional disturbance, and people with substance use disorders.
For 28-year-old Toni Lupro, the coronavirus pandemic has revealed how far she’s come in therapy for OCD and anxiety. Fears of contamination have dominated her life in the past, but the arrival of COVID-19 in Michigan hasn’t caused her to regress.
Lupro, of Ann Arbor, is a student at the Wayne State University School of Medicine. In her rotations at a family medicine clinic, she’s noticed that everyone seems to be affected by anxiety about the coronavirus.
“It’s kind of good to realize that everybody’s in the same boat. Even people who’ve been physicians for 30 years, we all don’t know necessarily what is going to happen,” she said. “I think that is kind of scary to the public. I think that helps me to know it’s not necessarily an irrational thing.”
The CDC offers the following tips for coping during the COVID-19 outbreak:
– People with pre-existing mental health conditions should continue with their treatment plans during an emergency and monitor for any new symptoms.
Avoid excessive exposure to media coverage of COVID-19.
Take care of your body. Take deep breaths, stretch or meditate. Try to eat healthy, well-balanced meals, exercise regularly, get plenty of sleep and avoid alcohol and drugs.
Make time to unwind and remind yourself that strong feelings will fade. Take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories. It can be upsetting to hear about the crisis and see images repeatedly. Try to do some other activities you enjoy to return to your normal life.
Connect with others. Share your concerns and how you are feeling with a friend or family member. Maintain healthy relationships.
Maintain a sense of hope and positive thinking.
Call your health care provider if stress reactions interfere with your daily activities for several days in a row.
If you are in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, or text SHARE to 741741.