A Mental Health Pandemic Is Raging Amid COVID-19 and Needs Our Attention, Experts Say
A combination of symptoms caused by the pandemic — like social isolation, anxiety, fear of contagion, uncertainty, chronic stress and economic difficulties — are leading to a great deal of stress for many.
As elected officials, frontline workers and everyday Americans struggle amid the spread of coronavirus, there is a pandemic raging throughout the country that many are not speaking about. Numerous people are being affected by what some experts have called a “mental health pandemic,” a crisis caused or exacerbated by COVID-19 that will only get worse if not addressed. And for some, time is not a luxury to be taken for granted.
When Lauren Grenda began dating her boyfriend, she knew he was a recovering alcoholic who struggled with depression. He’d been sober for a few years when they met, but she “underestimated” what it meant to be in recovery, she told Inside Edition Digital.
“I was like, ‘He's never going to drink again,’” Grenda said.
But her boyfriend, 41-year-old Ryan Gelatka, did drink again. His first relapse was in June 2019, at a wedding he was working for the wedding photography business the pair shared. The pair had been dating for a little over a year. Grenda, 33, thought they would get through it and it wasn’t a big deal, and for a while, things were fine. The pair tried to find a rehab program for Gelatka, but the programs aren’t often covered by insurance and it was too expensive, she said, noting rehab can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars a day.
Gelatka chose to go to Alcoholics Anonymous, or AA, meetings instead. He paired up with a sponsor and the couple began counseling together. All was seemingly well.
That all changed when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. In March, the United States went into a lockdown as the country tried to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Gelatka and Grenda, who lived in Chicago then, were doing their best, but times were hard. They lost half their income and Gelatka could no longer attend AA meetings.
“He was saying that he was just depressed all the time,” Grenda told Inside Edition Digital. “I didn't understand why he was depressed. I'm not a depressed person. So, he really was struggling and I didn't know he was tempted to drink.”
In April, Gelatka relapsed again. His drinking got out of control and he became suicidal, she said, noting that at one point, Grenda had to call 911 on him. But he fled from the police, she said. She knew there wasn’t much she could do so she went to go stay with her parents for a while. During that time, Gelatka reconnected with his sponsor, who he had drifted from when the pandemic hit. It seemed he was getting better, Grenda said.
During the summer, Gelatka began taking medication for his depression, but then stopped because he said he didn’t like the way it made him feel. It was causing him to have nightmares and insomnia. He also started distancing himself from his sponsor again. The couple also decided to move from Chicago to a suburb after the George Floyd protests broke out in the city. Two weeks after their August move, Gelatka relapsed for a third time while photographing another wedding.
“He was just really overwhelmed,” Grenda said.
Grenda believed things were at their worst when she had to pick up her boyfriend from the side of the road on several occasions. He received what was his fifth DUI at the end of August, and found out he’d have to serve a mandatory jail sentence of between five and 10 years.
“My family and a lot of my friends were like, ‘Screw him. Forget it. He's a big boy, he can handle it himself.’” Grenda said.
Gelatka got out of the hospital in early September after admitting himself for alcohol addiction and suicidal thoughts.
“He knew our relationship was strained, but I knew that he was suicidal so I didn't really talk about it because he was already mentally struggling all that time,” Grenda said.
On Sep. 12, Grenda said they had a “really good day.” They planned to go apple-picking in Michigan with her son the next day. She left the house for a bit to run an errand and when she returned home, she found Gelatka had tried to kill himself and was laying on the couch. She rushed to call 911 and paramedics arrived and began attempting CPR. But Gelatka could not be saved. Thirty minutes later, Gelatka was gone.
“I just laid on the bed. I just was screaming into my pillow,” Grenda said. “His parents found out the next day. The next day was probably worse for me, because it was like reality was hitting.”
The Mental Health Pandemic Is Raging On
Gelatka’s untimely death is a casualty of what some experts have called a “mental health pandemic” that is coinciding with the COVID-19 pandemic. A combination of symptoms caused by the pandemic — like social isolation, anxiety, fear of contagion, uncertainty, chronic stress and economic difficulties — can lead to the development or exacerbation of stress-related disorders and suicidality in vulnerable populations, according to an article published in the QJM: An International Journal of Medicine.
Isolation can be a major trigger for many people.
“As human beings, we thrive off of human contact,” Asha Terry, a psychotherapist and life coach, told Inside Edition Digital. “To be able to touch people and to see folks face-to-face, to read those nuances that you sometimes can't pick up remotely. So, now that we're in this pandemic and it's continuing, I think it's just exacerbated some of those symptoms of feeling isolated and experiencing loneliness.”
Symptoms of anxiety disorder and depressive disorder have increased considerably in the United States between April and June this year, compared with the same period in 2019, according to the CDC.
In late June, the CDC conducted a survey to see how the pandemic was affecting people’s mental health and more than 40% of people who responded said they were struggling with mental health and substance abuse and 26% of people said they had experienced trauma or stress related disorders. More alarmingly, 11% of respondents said they had “seriously considered suicide” in the 30 days before completing the survey. U.S. sales of alcoholic beverages also rose 55% at the end of March, compared with the same period last year, according to research by Nielsen.
Outside the loneliness and isolation caused by the pandemic, there is also mass grief occurring in the United States, and around the world. Since March, there have been more than 311,000 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. That is nearly four times the death toll from the Vietnam war. People have lost their family members and friends and had to change the way they grieved those deaths.
“Grief is part of the human mix,” Dr. Glenn Saxe, Professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine, told Inside Edition Digital. “People manage it and usually recover from it, but when you have so much that hits and impacts the way human beings have learned to manage devastation and loss and grief... We know for sure the most important part of managing loss is to be with people.
“So what happens here?” Saxe continued. “We know it's important to be able to say goodbye. So what happens when you can't visit a loved one who's in the hospital? People aren't able to cope because they aren't able to really gather, so you're not getting support in the same way.”
Grief Takes on a New Process During the Coronavirus Pandemic
For Grenda, grieving the death of Gelatka while also in the middle of a pandemic has been tough, but she is thankful that she has had a support system of family and friends to help her get through it. She has also started taking an antidepressant to help her cope.
“I moved back into the house about two months later, slowly kind of at first. During that six-week span, I would spend the day during the house to work and then I couldn't be there at night,” Grenda said. “Then I could be there at night, but someone would have to sleep next to me. It's been almost three months now. I can spend the night, but I have to have my dog or something.”
At first, Grenda said she was worried about the stigma of being on medication, but it has been incredibly helpful for her. Some days, she admits, though, she’d rather not get out of bed.
“It allows me to be able to breathe and go about my day because my life does not stop. I have a son, I have a business, I have a life,” Grenda said. “I don't want to say I'm not allowed to fall apart, but I'm doing everything I possibly can to cope and heal quickly to move forward. Not move on, but just to move forward.”
What Light May Be at the End of the Tunnel, and How Can We Get There?
While some hope may be on the horizon, as a COVID-19 vaccine has been approved to be administered in the U.S., things may continue to get worse for people struggling with their mental health as the winter sets in.
“People who have a history of Seasonal Affective Disorder are noticing just how much more stressful it is to have to be at home most of the day with the cold weather and then not being able to see people. So that's been really hard for some,” Terry said.
And even as people return to a “new normal,” although no one is quite sure what that will look like yet, there is a likelihood that the mental health impacts of the pandemic will be lasting. History is an example.
According to “The Spanish Flu Pandemic and Mental Health: A Historical Perspective,” an article published in the Psychiatric Times, one of the few researchers who investigated the link between the Spanish Flu and mental health was historical demographer Svenn-Erik Mamelund, PhD.
Mamelund noted in his findings that Spanish Flu survivors reported “sleep disturbances, depression, mental distraction, dizziness, and difficulties coping at work, and that influenza death rates in the United States during the years 1918-1920 significantly and positively related to suicide,” according to the article.
So not only can the pandemic trigger symptoms for someone else who had pre-existing PTSD or a complex trauma history, it can also cause PTSD for those who lived through it.
“I kind of posited this maybe three or four months ago, that I would imagine PTSD is probably going to be the next fastest growing mental health disorder in our nation or our world because of the physiological changes that go on when people survive or live through a crisis,” Terry said.
When asked if she thinks the mental health care system is prepared for an influx of that sort, Terry said no.
“I don't believe in our country, unfortunately, we're ever as prepared and honestly equipped to handle the numbers of people who really deserve mental health services,” she said. “And because we live in a country where more people who are marginalized could really benefit from it, they're going to be the last that probably receive treatment or stay in treatment because of all the stigma associated with seeking help from a professional for mental health reasons.”
In a published article in JAMA about the imminent mental health crisis, Saxe and two of his colleagues wrote that “a public health/community strategy is critical to protect the health care system from becoming overwhelmed.”
One of those recommendations included primary care physicians screening for PTSD. Someone who may not seek mental health help can be able to be evaluated by their regular doctor. “When people start having difficulties, who are the first people they will usually go to? It usually isn't a psychiatrist or a psychologist. It will usually be their primary care doctor,” Saxe said.
“We talked about the importance of training the workforce in order to recognize when people are having difficulty, when their grief is not going away, and may become pathological when feelings of fear and threat are not going away, and to be able to recognize the screen for it and begin to give people the support they need,” Saxe said. “And then to use the mental health system for those recognized with the most severe and complex problems. Because I don't think the mental health system or society in general is prepared for the magnitude of this sort of wave.”
Finding Comfort in Going Through the Unknown Together
Grenda shared the story of Gelatka’s death on TikTok and said she received more than 100 messages and emails from people revealing their own struggles during COVID-19.
“I've talked to people who have said that they are emotionally struggling because of COVID because they can't be around people, they lost their jobs, they are depressed, [or] their relationship with their wife or boyfriend or family members is strained because they're with each other 24/7 and they feel like they're stuck in the house,” Grenda said.
Grenda said she went to support groups for a while after her boyfriend’s death, and saw a therapist. She also noticed she was drinking too much, she said, noting it was nearly every day for a while. Now, she limits herself to once a week and one or two glasses of wine in a sitting. She is focusing on self-care.
“I'm also doing things like Reiki, acupuncture, massage, just a lot of self care, eating well, exercise,” she said.
Grenda wants people to know they are not alone, as isolating as this pandemic has been.
“Ryan and I looked like we had the picture perfect life, and in some ways I felt that we did. He was handsome and he had everything going for him. I'm not comparing him to Robin Williams, but you can look at people like Robin Williams and our life and say like, "Wow, I had no idea that person was emotionally struggling,’” she said. “So no matter how successful someone is, how beautiful someone is, people are constantly struggling and I'm here to change the stigma, especially during COVID.”
If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, call the toll-free, 24-hour hotline of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255)
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