Even as COVID-19 restrictions ease, pandemic stress still takes a toll on our mental health.

Your Health

For Some, This May Be the Hardest Chapter of the Pandemic

Even as COVID-19 restrictions ease, pandemic stress still takes a toll on our mental health.

Restaurants have reopened. More workers are returning to office settings every day. Grandparents are catching up on spoiling their grandchildren in person. Now, masks aren’t required most places.

Why, then, are so many of us having a hard time? Shouldn’t we be giddy over a return to normal after more than two years of pandemic life?

Not so fast, says Dr. James Rachal, psychiatrist at Atrium Health Behavioral Health Charlotte.

“A lot of times, when people are in the middle of a stressful situation, they don't have time to really take stock with the losses that have occurred. As we open back up, people will have that opportunity,” Rachal says. “People will start really reflecting on the past two years. As one thinks of their struggles, there may be increased feelings of depression and anxiety.”

Karla Lever, a licensed clinical mental health counselor supervisor and director of the Employee Assistance Program at Atrium Health, agrees.

“Sometimes during a very difficult situation, we have the energy and adrenalin to be a true hero,” Lever says. “But when the need for being a hero ends, that’s when the stress hits us, and we can be kind of a mess.”

The hard news is mental health challenges will persist, even as the pandemic eases. This has led to a “syndemic,” as the COVID-19 pandemic happens alongside the global mental health crisis.

The good news, however, is that there is hope. There are proven ways to cope with mental illness. Because you’re depressed or anxious today doesn’t mean that you’ll be depressed or anxious a year from now. Take the first step today – and Atrium Health can help.

Mental Health Challenges of COVID

If you’ve had a hard time the past two years, you are far from alone. Atrium Health has seen a 33% increase in utilization of the Employee Assistance Program (EAP). It’s understandable.

“With the isolation, the economic stress and the physical health stress, we are seeing significant levels of depression, anxiety and some trauma,” Rachal says. “Substance use is also a concern because not only are people stressed, they are also bored. They’ve lost the rhythm to their days.”

In addition, COVID-19 was associated with psychological disorders. Nearly a third of COVID-19 patients will experience long-term psychological or neurological disorders.

People who didn’t have mental health challenges before the pandemic are struggling with them for the first time, and many who had existing mental illnesses are facing even harder challenges.

“Human beings are naturally very resilient. But for us to be resilient during times of crisis, we need to have a lull during the crisis so that we can recover,” says Lever. “But what has happened with this pandemic is that there has not been a lull. It's been chronic stress, and that's why [mental illnesses] are normal right now. Our brains were not developed to deal with long-term stress.”

Finding Hope in the Struggle

Yet the collective struggle brought a silver lining. More people are receiving help for mental illness, and more people are open with their friends and family about needing that help.

“People are realizing that it isn’t enough to just pretend not to be stressed,” Lever says. “Because more people have been reaching out, the stigma has been lessened somewhat.”

Another silver lining of the past two years has been the increased availability of virtual visits and telemedicine. Such visits decrease barriers for getting help, such as a lack of transportation or child care. Even as the pandemic eases, these virtual options will remain available.

“Now that we offer more telemedicine for psychiatry, there's more privacy. People may be more willing to reach out because it's easier,” Rachal says. “Some of the stigma and barriers are broken down because you no longer have to walk into a behavioral health facility. You can get your care at home.”

Virtual therapy has improved Atrium Health’s adult outpatient therapy no-show rate: It was 14% in 2019, but now it’s down to 8.5% based on late-2021 numbers.

Taking that First Step

As people face the next chapter of the pandemic and all of the changes that will come with it, Rachal and Lever want to remind everyone to be mindful of their mental health.

Stress is normal, they say, as is occasional irritability. Having times when it’s hard to fall asleep or when it’s hard to stay positive are not necessarily signs of mental illness. However, when the stress creates major changes in behavior – such as not eating, not taking care of oneself, or not staying connected to friends or family– it may signal that it’s time to seek help.

“The longer people take to get help, the more they get stuck in cycles that are unhealthy, from behavioral, cognitive and emotional perspectives,” Lever says. “So it is important to reach out as soon as you can, so that a better remission or recovery can be possible. There is absolutely hope for recovery.”

“Getting help is definitely not a sign of weakness,” Rachal says. “Not getting help when you need it can be the easy way out. Any time you ask for help, you’re trying to make a change, and that’s a courageous thing.”

Tips to Get Help

  1. Call Atrium Health’s Behavioral Health Help Line at 704-444-2400 for 24/7 mental health crisis assistance.
  2. If you or a loved one is attempting suicide, please call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline right away at 800-273-8255. Help is available.
  3. For more information about Atrium Health Behavioral Health services or to request an appointment, visit AtriumHealth.org/BehavioralHealth.
  4. If you’re employed, ask your employer if there’s an Employee Assistance Program. This is a great place to start, and they’ll work with your insurance.