By Dr. Siquilla Liebetrau

Clinical Director

Bowen Center

There seems to be a collective yearning for a return to normal.

People are simply exhausted from pandemic living. Even folks that tend to have good self-care routines, social support systems and naturally handle change well are reaching their threshold of tolerance. If we are to be honest with ourselves though, there is no return to normal. Partly because our world has been changed, partly because we have been changed.

The experts say the mental health impact of the pandemic is likely to last much longer than the physical health impact. We know we can expect substantial increases in anxiety and depression, substance use and gambling, self-harm, suicidal ideation, loneliness, even domestic violence and child abuse. There is an increased risk for post-traumatic stress disorder. We know people with pre-existing mental health conditions will be more vulnerable.  

We should also consider what the potential impact may be of trying to return to normal. For some of us the fear of reentry into society will be debilitating. The thought of having to go out in public where we cannot control other people’s actions and could be exposed to the virus may lead to panic attacks. These panic attacks may occur without any prior warning. Some people may develop agoraphobia where you fear and avoid places or situations that might cause you to panic and make you feel trapped, helpless or embarrassed. You fear an actual or anticipated situation such as being in open or enclosed spaces or being in a crowd. This can lead to self-imposed isolation.

It could be that you have become so overwhelmed by your circumstances, job loss, relationship strain, financial stressors, state of the economy and more that you become hopeless and helpless and experience severe depression to the point that you can’t function anymore. You may feel so overwhelmed that you are considering suicide as the only option out of your emotional distress.

For some the trauma related to this pandemic experience will lead to post-traumatic stress disorder where you may be plagued by distressing memories, flashbacks and nightmares. You may choose to avoid people, places and things that remind you of your trauma. You may have negative changes in thinking and mood as well as physical and emotional reactions such as an easy startle response, always being on guard, self-destructive behavior, difficulty sleeping and concentrating, irritability, anger, aggression, guilt and shame.

Your emotional distress may become so overwhelming that you develop a pattern of substance use that spirals out of control and impedes your functioning. Some may have been in recovery from substance use but are now so overwhelmed and triggered by their circumstances that they simply lose their hold on sobriety.

Now that you know the facts, be proactive in seeking support for yourself and your loved ones. The basics still apply, make sure you continue to get social connection, good sleep, exercise and nutrition and engage in daily self-care practices. If this is not enough, seek out mental health treatment. Therapy and medication management is now available via phone and videoconferencing. Many companies have employee assistance programs that offer free access to a set number of therapy sessions. Trained, caring professionals are out there that specialize in supporting your emotional wellbeing. It is completely confidential, no one needs to know.

If you are concerned that a loved one may have suicidal ideation, be intentional about engaging them with the following question, “Does any part of you want to kill yourself?” Research is very clear on this topic, asking the question will not “plant any seeds” of suicidality but instead communicate an openness and willingness to hear the truth and help.

The National Suicide Prevention Line (800-273-8255) and the crisis text line (text HOME to 741741) is a great resource for anyone experiencing suicidal thinking.