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Columbia Business Monthly

Isolation, Job Loss Are Taking Big Toll

By Liv Osby

The coronavirus pandemic has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans, strained the nation’s health care system and routed the economy.

But some of its effects are less obvious.

The isolation, the extra workloads - or the job loss - and the demands of parenting under these circumstances have given rise to extraordinary stress that has pushed some people to the limit.

Mental health experts say that levels of anxiety and depression are at an all-time high, and the number of Americans considering suicide is growing.

“Fundamentally, the world has changed,” said national stress expert Dr. Lynn Bufka of the American Psychological Association. 

“And adapting to it is really hard.”

“I am busier than I’ve ever been,” adds Greenville psychologist Martha Durham. “There is so much unknown constantly and a lot of people are on edge all the time.”

The result, she said, is that those who wouldn’t normally be anxious or depressed are, and those who already were are worse.

Indeed, Mental Health America reports that from January to September, anxiety screenings on its online tool were up 634 percent while depression screenings were up 873 percent. 

Meanwhile, nearly half a million more people have seriously considered suicide than last year, the group reports.

“This is a troubling trend being fueled by loneliness and isolation,” said MHA CEO Paul Gionfriddo. “We are also seeing alarming numbers of children reporting thoughts of suicide and self-harm.”

The ER at the Medical University of South Carolina’s Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital in Charleston has seen the percentage of children with mental health issues jump from 2.5 percent in November 2019 to 12 percent in November 2020.

“They’ve been quarantined and had their lives upended,” said Kelsey Allen, a pediatric emergency medicine fellow at MUSC and instructor in the College of Medicine. “It’s been hard to see because you want to do everything you can to help children cope.” 

Dr. Ryan Byrne, a psychiatrist and assistant professor at MUSC, says the increase is largely related to the pandemic, either directly because of the stress or because they lost access to therapists and other providers they’d been seeing at school or other psychiatric visits prior to the virus. And telehealth visits aren’t available to those who don’t have technology, he said.

While there is no data yet on suicides in South Carolina for 2020, anecdotal evidence from EMS suggests that attempts are up, said Jennifer Butler, program director of the state Department of Mental Health’s Office of Suicide Prevention. And some of the highest rates are among those 85 and older, she said.

“In 2019, the numbers did go up,” she said. “So in thinking about 2020, that’s why we’re so concerned.”

Fears about getting the virus are top of mind for most, of course, said Bufka, who spoke along with Butler at a recent event held by AARP South Carolina. 

But also fueling the stress are worries parents have about distance learning for their children. 

“Individuals with children in school are really struggling right now,” she said. “And parents … are overwhelmed.”

In addition, young people who would normally be moving out into the world on their own can’t, so they’re struggling too, she said, while older Americans can’t see their children and grandchildren.

And many Americans are agonizing over finances.

“A significant number are struggling economically, they’ve lost jobs, lost income, lost opportunities to advance … and not knowing when it will end,” Bufka said. “We will have tremendous economic issues that we’ll have to still recover from when the pandemic ends.”

“The pandemic has led to huge economic disparities,” adds Durham. “Some people are in financial crisis because they’re not able to work.”

But even those lucky enough to have jobs can be affected.

Working remotely can bring added pressures, contributing to a 34 percent increase in burnout over 2019, according to new research from the staffing agency Robert Half, which surveyed workers in 28 cities.

The reasons? Some 30 percent said they’re managing a heavier workload while 19 percent said they can’t maintain boundaries between professional and personal life.

The pandemic has made 2020 one of the most stressful years ever for workers, regardless of industry, according to Carlie Boese, vice president with Robert Half in Greenville.

“Many employees are feeling the stress of heavy workloads and pressing deadlines,” she said. 

“And because the coronavirus has such an impact on staffing and staffing levels, they’re working with decreased resources … running leaner,” she said. “But just because you have less people, doesn’t mean you have less work.” 

Women were more likely than men to report increased burnout, as were those in the 25 to 40 age range, according to the report.

Many women left the labor pool in April, in part because the bulk of domestic responsibilities and child rearing fall to them, said Boese. 

“When we got into the heavy lifting of Covid,” she said, “women’s labor participation dropped to what we saw in the ‘80s and it hasn’t come back.” 

And for younger people working remotely, there’s no discerning between social and work lives anymore, she said. 

“They’re sitting in the same room every day,” she said. “And there’s nothing telling you to shut it off. No commute, no drinks after work with friends.”

A separate Robert Half survey revealed that 88 percent of senior managers are worried about retention because of heavy workloads and burnout.

Employers can help by identifying and preventing burnout, and by encouraging better work-life balance, flexible scheduling and additional vacation days where people can really turn work off for a while, Boese said.

“Everyone is so accessible,” she said. “Giving them a true break makes a big difference.”

Health care workers have borne the brunt of the pressures, having been on the front lines from the beginning, juggling their jobs and fears that they and their families would get sick, Durham said. Their burnout has been intensified by dwindling support compared to the early days when they were hailed as heroes, and compounded by mixed messaging, she said.

“It feels like pandemic fatigue has set in and we’re not as supportive as we were,” she said. “There are people who don’t think it’s real. So they went from a lot of respect to not a whole lot of respect. It’s really hard on them.”

There’s also been a dramatic increase in veterans using state, local and private nonprofit mental health resources, according to Will Grimsley, secretary of the South Carolina Department of Veterans Affairs, who also spoke at the AARP event.

“It’s been stressful. But there is hope,” he said. “I encourage everybody to remain as connected as you possibly can.”

And older people are affected as well, especially by the social isolation and as the holidays approach, said Teresa Arnold, executive director of AARP South Carolina.

Managing the stress and challenges of wanting to be with loved ones while recognizing it’s not always safe to do so is hard for many people, Bufka said. 

“We know that individuals need to be connected to others, and it’s hard to do that right now,” she said. “It’s not a sign that anybody’s not capable of coping. This is a tough time for folks.”

Butler said that hope and connecting with others are not only important to quality of life, but vital to preventing suicide. The pandemic has presented challenges to how people can make those connections.

“If you are feeling distressed and lonely and disconnected, please reach out,” she said. “It’s OK to seek help.”

Things that can make a difference include getting enough sleep, eating well, participating in some sort of physical activity, doing things that give you purpose and connecting with others through technology or even sending letters, Bufka said.

For instance, her extended family had a pie-making day via Zoom. 

Durham also advises limiting screen time, social media use and TV news viewing – for adults and children – which can be stressful.

“This has been a terrible year,” Durham said. “Some of it just seems out of our control.”

Bufka said that news of a vaccine on the horizon is encouraging.

“But it will be a long time,” she said. “This is a marathon, not a sprint.” 


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