Why COVID-19 is also a mental health pandemic

This content is sponsored by Greenbrook TMS.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Americans have been watching the numbers of those infected rise daily. Fear of COVID-19 causing physical harm or even death has become a real, daily concern. COVID-19 has disrupted our normal routines, impaired access to community services, forced social distancing, and limited recreational options, as well as increased our concerns about employment, financial circumstances, and medical well-being. All of these stressors can impact a person’s mental health, both by stretching the capacity to tolerate life stressors and by exacerbating pre-existing psychiatric conditions. While most of us are feeling stressed and anxious, COVID-19 is plaguing people with mental health issues in particular ways:

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that patients receiving mental health treatment continue seeking and receiving care while keeping an eye out for new or worsening symptoms—but access to care using systems that have been in place for decades has been uprooted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Mental health providers are adapting to this challenge by offering telemedicine services, but adoption has been inconsistent, and technological limitations can degrade the quality of this technique. Patients who are accustomed to face-to-face visits are now being asked to adjust to these changes at the same time their stressors may be increasing in severity and quantity. At Greenbrook TMS, we’re meeting this challenge by increasing access to telehealth. We now offer our consultations and other select appointments to take place via teleconference or phone call.

-Involuntary social isolation resulting from social distancing and shelter-in-place policies can remove the positive buffering effect that comes with visiting friends and family. In-home isolation can cause boredom and can increase maladaptive habits such as excessive alcohol use and illicit drug use. This can exacerbate underlying diseases including mental health concerns.

-Shelter-in-place and social distancing policies may alter relationship patterns with other members of the household due to constant immersion. Disruptions to daily routines and higher frequency of interpersonal interactions with members of the household can stress frustration tolerance and conflict resolution skillsets. Keeping perspective during conflict can be more difficult without the benefit of a complete exposure to the world that existed before COVID-19.

-For patients who have trouble determining what is real and what is not, contending with an unprecedented, invisible threat can cause delusional beliefs to flare. Inconsistent reactions from policymakers, health providers, and other institutions can create further confusion. Anxiety associated with excessive preoccupation with perceived threats now must negotiate risks from a virus that cannot be seen and whose presence cannot be detected in real time. Efforts to mitigate that risk through diligent hygiene and social distancing can be unsatisfying without immediate feedback to confirm a threat has been successfully avoided.  Even mild symptoms previously dismissed as allergies or the common cold can raise the specter of a non-severe COVID-19 infection, triggering additional worry about infection to other household occupants. All of these concerns can lead to frustrating somatic ruminations and fears that can be difficult to abate, particularly for individuals struggling with obsessive compulsive disorder who already harbor thoughts or compulsions around germs, contamination, and cleanliness. Additionally, the supply shortages of goods and certain foods and heightened political tensions associated with emergency policy development and deployment can add to the sense of catastrophe we are facing.

I recommend we all acknowledge the epic challenges that are being placed before us with COVID-19.  Greater patience and understanding can go a long way to traversing this pandemic. But even with the best decisions and behaviors, people may find they develop new mental health symptoms or previous symptoms can become exacerbated. Remain engaged in mental health care if you have existing providers. If you have new symptoms and no previous relationship with a mental health provider then your primary care physician can be an excellent resource for institution of initial treatment and referral recommendations if appropriate.

If you are struggling with depressive or obsessive compulsive symptoms that have not improved despite medication or psychotherapy treatment, or if your symptoms were previously well controlled but are flaring due to recent events, you may have treatment-resistant depression, and we can help. Transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS therapy, is a safe, FDA cleared, non-drug, non-invasive treatment for depression. TMS therapy is offered in an outpatient environment, away from hospitals and emergency rooms that are on the front lines of caring for patients with COVID-19. We accept most insurance plans, including Medicare and, in many states, Medicaid.

All Greenbrook TMS NeuroHealth centers remain 100 percent operational during the COVID-19 pandemic. We have implemented aggressive hygiene procedures and telemedicine capabilities to be able to provide service to our patients in as safe a manner as possible. Call us today for a free consultation to see if TMS can help you.

This article was written by: Dr. Geoffrey Grammer, Chief Medical Officer, Greenbrook TMS NeuroHealth Centers


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