Therapists and mental health professionals in southeastern Connecticut are seeing the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbate existing issues of depression and anxiety among clients, and with winter approaching, seasonal affective disorder adds another layer of difficulty.
But they’ve also shared some coping strategies, and one piece of advice came up a few times: Turn off the news.
“If you want to look up something, go online and look it up. Try not to have video, because the video is going to intensify that fear,” said Katie Ziskind, owner of Wisdom Within Counseling in Niantic. She works with a lot of kids and said parents may not realize that what the news does to an 8-year-old’s brain is different from what it does to an adult brain.
She offered the reminder that you can choose what to watch, and that watching puppies or dance moves on TikTok “is going to bring you into the present moment and remind you of the joys of life.”
She also said the app could be used for motivation: For example, if you need to make yourself lunch, make a video of yourself making lunch. This ties into an effect she sometimes sees from seasonal affective disorder, a type of depression that generally occurs in the winter when there’s less sunlight.
“Sometimes with seasonal affective disorder, I see this kind of cycling with not wanting to eat breakfast, drinking coffee at noon,” Ziskind said. She said getting yourself to eat breakfast might mean getting up earlier, or maybe cooking eggs to engage the sense of smell, which can improve appetite.
In terms of interests and hobbies, she has one client who picked up whittling, and Ziskind also suggested things like painting, wood burning, or picking up a new instrument. She specifically recommended the YouTube channel Cosmic Kids Yoga and the Mindbody app, which Ziskind — a yoga teacher — is using to take a virtual handstand class out of New York.
Ziskind said kids under 12 generally still come to her practice in person, whereas most adults do video therapy. She said people from more than an hour away — even from out of state — seek out Wisdom Within Counseling because of its specialties, which include infidelity counseling and working with transgender and nonbinary teenagers. This means Ziskind was used to offering teletherapy even before the pandemic.
She said she’s seen a large increase in calls during the pandemic from couples, who may “have turned to negative patterns to try to cope” or found that being home together all the time, a secret has come out.
Finding new interests and alternative goals
Rita Gilman, a licensed professional counselor in Mystic, said way more people have reached out to her this year, and it’s hard to keep up with returning calls just to say she’s booked. But she wants to be “fully focused on each individual” and is mindful of not taking on too many clients.
In 2020, she’s seen stress on parents trying to handle online remote learning, struggles with work-life balance among those working from home, and financial stress adding to depression and anxiety.
She recommends not being “over-inundated with the news,” and urges people to focus on getting proper sleep and engaging in the current moment — perhaps by focusing on a smell or touch — instead of thinking about the future.
In terms of interests and hobbies, “One of my clients took up learning German, because they always wanted to and never really had the time,” Gilman said. “Some are doing crafts. Some are doing big, intricate puzzles. Some are blogging.”
Michelle van Duinen, a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner based in Stonington, said the population she has seen most impacted is elderly patients, especially those who are widowed or divorced and live alone.
In general, she encourages people to not leave the TV on all day, because “it’s flooding you with negative imaging,” and said that seasonal affective disorder may mean that one needs to take some supplemental vitamin D.
Other suggestions include getting up at the same time every day, drinking enough water, crafting and playing virtual games with others. Van Duinen said several patients want a dog or cat but it’s become difficult to adopt.
Rashaad Carter, a licensed clinical social worker who works with adolescents, traditionally met with a kid once a week but is now adding in a second virtual visit or a home visit to help them stay on task. He has seen behavior that might have been settled in the past is now “through the roof,” and that anxiety for some kids has increased tenfold.
Many of Carter’s clients are student athletes, and he has tried to prepare them for the worst in terms of expecting postponed seasons, and to help them set alternative goals.
“You might not be an athlete right now but you’re still a student, so be the best student you can be,” he said, or the best son you can be.
Mental health organizations turn to virtual support groups
The southeastern Connecticut chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness has seen a significant increase in the number of participants at its weekly support group meetings, board member Dr. Frank Maletz said, though those meetings now are virtual.
“Folks are more stressed, more anxious, more symptomatic, as a result of COVID and the isolation,” Maletz said. He also said people are struggling with having psychiatric and psychotherapeutic interactions via Zoom rather than in person, and it’s harder for some to form a doctor-patient rapport or feel empathy.
Maletz got involved with NAMI in January through his work in opioid addiction prevention. He noted that a sense of hopelessness and fear of the future can drive anxiety and depression, which, paired with distancing from family members, can lead to an increase in substance abuse.
The Connecticut chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention also has moved its programming online this year, and walks have gone virtual. Board member Tom Steen, who lost a son to suicide almost 11 years ago, said Connecticut hasn’t seen an increase in suicide deaths yet but thinks that will happen due to the pandemic.
“Cancer takes its times before it shows up and affects the body. Well, the same thing happens with somebody struggling with mental health,” he said, “and if they don’t get treatment, it can get worse and worse.”
Steen said the key message from AFSP is to stay connected, that we need to physically distance but not socially distance.
Ann Dagle of East Lyme is an AFSP volunteer and founder of the Brian Dagle Foundation, which is dedicated to helping grieving adults and has gone virtual with its grief support groups.
“COVID has definitely compounded their grief,” Dagle said. “When you’re grieving, you’re isolated and feeling so alone anyway in your grief, and put COVID on top of that when you literally are isolated and cannot be with people to support you.”
She said mental health struggles have increased tremendously during the pandemic, but she hopes people will be able to ride it out and call the hotline numbers or take advantage of telehealth with therapists.
“We’re so concerned about people’s physical health, which we understand,” Dagle said, “but we also really have to put an emphasis on our mental health.”