Social distancing weighs on those who struggle with mental health

Katherine Solie. Submitted photo

Every morning Katherine Solie wakes up around 6:30 a.m., makes herself a cup of coffee and a plate of avocado toast, then settles in to start work from the table of her living room. Although Solie is in a better place than she was two years ago, the 30-year-old said she is feeling the strain of social distancing amid the pandemic.

A former alcoholic, Solie has been sober for nine years. Although drinking isn’t a concern of hers anymore, her suicidal ideations have been coming back more frequently. Missing out on important life events like her friend’s pregnancy and nephew’s second birthday party doesn’t make things easier.

Although she’s grateful to have the mental health support and community she has now, Solie said she’s worried about those that don’t.

“I feel very fortunate … to be where I’m at today,” she said. “If this happened a year and a half ago or even a year ago, I believe it’s possible that my mental health would have quickly dwindled.”

For local residents coping with addiction or mental health issues, the isolation and ambiguity ushered in by the pandemic have led to heightened stress levels.

Financial worries stemming from job loss or furlough, the stress of childcare and the anxiety about catching the virus are resulting in more cause for concern among mental health experts. Although some therapists have seen more clients reach out, most have seen a drop-off in the number of people they’re currently helping.

“It was a very rough transition,” said Jade Erickson, an independent clinical social worker at Lyn-Lake Psychotherapy and Wellness.

Erickson lost about half of her clients at the beginning of April. Although she has seen the number rise a bit since then, the shift to video or phone call sessions has been a challenge. Some of her clients were unable to make the switch because of lack of technological knowledge or accessibility. Others didn’t have the energy to navigate telehealth services, and some only wanted to meet in person.

Despite all this, Erickson said her clients are responding to the pandemic in different ways. Some have been diving into new hobbies and taking the stay-at-home order well, while others have been more detached and unresponsive. Some clients ask for fewer or shorter sessions a week, while others have doubled or tripled their number of meetings.

Lindsay Markworth, of Twin Cities Music Therapy Services, said “the most challenging aspects are the isolation and interruption of routine.”

About 40% of her clients have transitioned to telehealth, a change she was initially worried about given that most of her sessions include the use of music or instruments. For clients with autism, dementia or disabilities, it can be difficult to help them set up a video call, or explain why they can no longer meet in person.

“It’s such a dangerous combination,” she said. “The increase in anxiety, the increase in depression and isolation. I think people can really easily feel hopeless. We don’t know when we’re going to get to go back to normal. It seems very out of our control.”

Hanna Zipes. Submitted photo

Hanna Zipes, a LynLake psychotherapist, said loss of access to in-person support groups and meetings can be especially harmful to those who relied on these places to find community and establish interpersonal relationships.

One of her clients was attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings before the stay-at-home order. Now, with the group moving to phone or video sessions, it’s been harder for them to keep attending meetings and maintain those relationships. They have since gone back to drinking.

“For those who were already having a hard time, for those that may have already been on the brink of needing help or breaking down, this can take them across that line,” Zipes said. “And those are the communities that I think are having the hardest time transitioning to get support.”

Since March, the “Disaster Distress Helpline” with the national Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration saw an 891% year-over-year increase in call volume. Mental health experts say that the data is worrying, especially given that national suicide rates have been rising steadily for the past two decades.

“One of the hallmarks of a substance use disorder, and many mental health disorders, is isolation, a lack of community and a lack of meaningful connections,” said Julie Rohovit, the director for the Center for Practice Transformation at the University of Minnesota School of Social Work. “Individuals who were struggling with that in the first place are struggling with it probably a hundredfold now. … So people are really experiencing that sense of isolation in a new and different way.”

One of the current challenges for therapists like Zipes is helping clients cope with factors that are largely out of their control. Focusing on what aspects of daily life you can control, whether it’s forming a sleep schedule, showering every day or scheduling a time to call friends or family, can help stave off restlessness.

“Anxiety is contagious,” she said. “We learn how to behave by watching other people behave.”

Making sure people are getting information from credible sources and reaching out to support networks is crucial, Zipes said.

“Part of being resilient is also looking for resilience in other people,” she said. “We see some people that are really doing beautiful things, like making masks with their children … delivering food, fostering animals in times of crisis — I mean there are people who are doing really beautiful things,  and [it’s important] to hold all of that in perspective.”

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text MN to 741-741. You can call or text 24 hours a day, seven days a week.