Assessing COVID’s Toll On Mental Health

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Health , COVID-19

Pandemic stress affects people of all ages.  SHARON McCUTCHEON / PIXABAY

Over the past year, feeling anxious and depressed has almost become part of the daily routine. But for more and more people, those feelings are getting in the way of day-to-day living.

State Senator Julian Cyr, D–Truro, has been fully immersed in the region’s response to the pandemic since the beginning, attending countless meetings and helping to organize the Cape Cod COVID Response Task Force. When the first cases were being reported but before in-person gatherings were restricted, Cyr held office hours when he met with around two dozen constituents, then attended meetings with other lawmakers and officials of the Cape Cod National Seashore. He also had some personal social engagements.

“I estimate that I came into contact with at least 120 people during that three-day period,” he said. He then developed a fever, from which it took around a week to recover. Cyr said he was terrified that he had exposed all of those people “to this unknown deadly virus.” With widespread testing not yet available, he was left to wonder if he had sickened others. “Emotionally, I was wrecked,” he said. He experienced severe depression and was unable to get out of bed. Though Cyr ultimately concluded that he had not exposed others to the virus and has now recovered both physically and mentally, he benefited from outpatient mental health care during the process.

“I say all of this because we all have this experience in one way or another,” he said. People’s lives have been upended, their relationships have been disrupted, and they suffered fear and anxiety “which is still with us, in many ways.”

“The emotional effects of COVID, no one is exempt from them,” Harwich Youth Counselor Sheila House said. Both the teens she works with regularly and their parents report heightened anxiety and feelings of isolation. Young people suffer from not being able to spend time with their friends, which is key in their social development. And parents have to watch the struggle and enforce the rules, and “they never know when their kid is going to have to be quarantined,” House said. COVID-19 has disrupted the routines that make life predictable, causing a persistent underlying feeling of uncertainty.

“People like a routine,” she said. The Monomoy schools are sponsoring a free webinar entitled “Pandemic Parenting: Supporting Teen Mental Health,” on April 8 at 7 p.m. For information, visit

Meara Baldwin, director of behavioral health at Outer Cape Health Services, said some patients reach out because they feel anxiety or worsening depression, but they’re also likely to present with other problems.

“We are seeing all of the conditions that are often co-morbid with mental health increasing,” she said. Some who have substance abuse problems have relapsed, and others have gained weight.

“People joke about the ‘COVID 19’ weight gain,” but many people are experiencing it, and it is often a symptom of mental health stressors, Baldwin said. Not only does the pandemic cause stress, but it strips away some of the mechanisms people ordinarily use to cope with stress. “Everybody has protective factors that they lean on, even in good times,” she said. Some do volunteer work or take part in a social circle, while others work out in a gym or take part in team sports. “And so many of these have…decreased or changed because of the pandemic,” Baldwin said.

Feeling anxious or depressed during the pandemic is to be expected. When does it become a problem?

“When people notice that it’s really interfering with their quality of life,” House said. “When their sadness or anxiety feels like it’s stopping them from doing things.”

It also may be time to seek help when those feelings interfere with personal relationships or with one’s physical health, Baldwin added. An excellent starting point is to have a discussion with one’s primary care physician. Especially now, “this is a familiar topic to them,” she said. Anyone who experiences thoughts of suicide or harming oneself or others shouldn’t wait to see the doctor, but should call 911 or visit the nearest emergency department.

For many others, mild symptoms of stress can be managed through self-care. House encouraged people to visit, the county human services department website, to find out about mental health resources. The site also includes an online diagnostic tool to help people decide what kind of care would be best for them.

Getting outdoor exercise certainly helps, House said. “Those that seem to be feeling good through the winter are people who got outside and moved around and found some kind of an exercise practice that they like to do,” she said.

Both House and Baldwin encourage people to focus on mindfulness, an idea that’s less new-agey than it sounds.

“It’s a simple concept. It’s the idea of focusing on what’s going on around you instead of worrying about what you’re going to do later today, or worrying about what you did yesterday,” Baldwin said. Breathing exercises and “taking notice of what each of your five senses are experiencing” are ways to achieve mindfulness, which quiets the part of the brain that worries and wakes up the part that processes senses. “It changes our brain chemistry,” she said.

For many people, when vaccine availability improves and opportunities to socialize safely increases, “I think that the symptoms will decrease,” House said. She personally is looking forward to going to the movies again, going to see plays and having dinner parties. “People are social animals. We all know that,” she said.

If you are experiencing feelings of suicide, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.