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Richard O. Ajayi

COVID-19 and Mental Health

By Kevin Brown

Since the COVID-19 pandemic started more than a year ago, millions of people around the world have been affected by the virus. While the physical effects of COVID-19 are well-known, the impact on mental health has been less well documented. The stress caused by the pandemic along with isolation, job loss and reduced wages has greatly affected peoples’ mental health.

Richard O. Ajayi, M.D., inpatient psychiatrist and medical director of the Washington Health System (WHS) Center for Mental Health and Wellbeing – Outpatient Services, agrees that there has been “some uptick” in the number of people seeking help for mental health problems related to the pandemic. Those with existing mental health issues have been particularly affected.

“Just like someone with hypertension or diabetes is more vulnerable to having worsening of high blood pressure or blood sugar when they're under stress, someone who has a pre-existing mental health condition such as depression or anxiety is definitely more vulnerable to any kind of stressors related to the pandemic,” he says.

As expected, people are most affected by anxiety and depression. “People who have anxiety will be number one, you know, everyone is kind of afraid, kind of apprehensive of the unknown, the fluidity and the rapidly changing dynamics of COVID-19,” Dr. Ajayi explains. “So, anxiety is number one and depression is number two.”

Dr. Ajayi notes that people who have anxiety can’t sleep because they are worrying about the pandemic along with the potential impact of reduced wages or job loss. Those affected by depression become more withdrawn and reclusive because of the COVID-19 restrictions. He says that some people in these situations have a tendency to overeat or overindulge in drugs or alcohol so more people are being affected by addiction.

Children can be particularly affected by anxiety and depression during the pandemic. Home schooling, the loss of social activities, isolation and other stresses that may be affecting their family members such as job loss, can add up to a lot of stress.

“With kids you want to look for more externalizing behavior, acting out behavior, more withdrawn, devoting more time to electronics and to social media,” Dr Ajayi says. “Parents should encourage their kids to talk about their anxieties, their emotions, and to let them know that it's okay to have some anxiety. If it is getting to the point that it is becoming overwhelming and is affecting functioning, then parents should consult their family doctor or their employee assistance program (EAP) if one is available to seek professional help.”

Seniors can be affected as well since they tend to be more isolated, especially with the COVID-19 restrictions, and are more likely to have pre-existing physical and cognitive limitations. “It's important to constantly reach out to them and, of course, you have to do this in a way that's safe because they are more vulnerable to COVID-19. You have to find a way to keep them connected. They might not be able to use technology like FaceTime, so someone can show it to them. Just be creative with them,” he explains.

Treatment doesn't necessarily have to be medications, according to Dr. Ajayi. “For most people, treatment might just be expanding your support network to find people you can talk to, that you can commiserate with, bounce ideas off. I think it is important to check-in with people, those you consider to be your support system or social network. It could be just phone calls, video conferencing, or FaceTime,” he says.

As far as seeing a professional, Dr. Ajayi recommends that, if anxiety or depression is affecting daily functioning, you need to see a professional whether it is a primary care physician, therapist or psychiatrist.

He also advises that, if you are working and have access to an EAP through your employer, you can get free counseling sessions. Your family doctor should be the next step. Beyond that, if you have health insurance, you can go to your insurance website, or you can call the number on the back of your insurance card and they can help you see mental health professionals.

“I think a lot of people just don't know how to avail themselves of the opportunities in terms of getting treatment. But there's really a lot of resources that are available to us,” he notes.

Washington Health System offers outpatient mental health services through its Center for Mental Health and Wellbeing – Outpatient Services as well as inpatient psychiatric care. For children, mental health services are available through the WHS Children’s Therapy Center. Addiction services are provided through Greenbrier Treatment Center. For more information about these services, visit www.whs.org, or call WHS at (724) 225-7000.

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