COVID-19’s effect on health goes beyond physical

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Social distancing is starting to affect student's mental health in negative ways that psychologists are only starting to realize. 

Finals week is not known for its consideration of students' mental health.

From the uncertainty of final grades and the stress of studying in not ideal environments, it can take a toll. It is a combination of these things, social distancing orders and the overall state of the country that is causing a trend of increased levels of anxiety and depression in people around the country.

Kara Niccum, a substance abuse counselor at the Oklahoma State University Counseling Center, is seeing this trend in action.

“We as a whole, our numbers are increasing and are going to increase for mental health concerns just because the things that help when it comes to mental health aren’t as readily available right now,” Niccum said

For people who already are diagnosed with a mental illness, the social isolation, inability to reach physicians for prescription refills and the loss of certain coping mechanisms can aggravate their symptoms. But even without a diagnosis, people can start to develop issues because of uncertainty and stressful situations in their daily lives, according to clinical psychologist Thad Leffingwell.

“I think for everybody, the stress of the whole situation is not good for one’s mental wellbeing in general,” Leffingwell said. “We know that uncertainty is a real risk factor for disruptions in psychological wellbeing. We are certainly dealing with lots and lots of uncertainty, not just uncertainty about when life goes back to something normal … Lots of people have uncertainty about financial situations. Lots of students are dealing with uncertainty about their future, about graduation.”

The problem the current situation poses for psychologists is they don’t know what to expect from an event of this magnitude or what the effects will do to students.

“I think some of the main things I’m worried about as a psychologist are things like depression and anxiety but also substance abuse problems,” Leffingwell said. “I think that the thing that is most concerning to me is it is all unknown how much these problems will develop or how long they will persist after because this is a fairly unprecedented situation. Right now, it is really anyone’s guess if there is really much to worry about this at all.”

Radical changes have affected students from having to move home to the wellbeing of loved ones to adapting to classes in an online setting. The symptoms of anxiety and depression may start to develop as too much or too little sleep and appetite or avoidance of things that cause that anxious feelings because of the loss of comfort provided by the structure of classes or jobs.

There is a risk that without usual coping mechanisms, people will revert to unhealthy behaviors like drug use and alcoholism.

“Sometimes we’re struggling," Niccum said. "We want to escape, and we certainly know that people sometimes turn to alcohol or drugs to escape. When we’re essentially limited on where we can go, we feel stuck at home, many people will turn to what feels an easy out, a guaranteed out, just a way of coping, a way of escaping that isn’t the most healthy but it feels good when a lot of things don’t feel good.”

According to Jennifer Labrecque, an assistant professor, the changes happening right now have caused a loss in those core automatic actions students have developed over the past semester while on campus.

“We like stability,” Labrecque said. “We are creatures who do not like change. We are big fans of the status quo. So when you have habits that are adaptive or not particularly adaptive, you know what to expect, and there are low levels of uncertainty … When people are taken out of those environments, they are in different places or their schedule has changed significantly, they’re unnerving.”

It is the loss of those habits that has caused many of the issues students face, especially during finals week when studying for tests and polishing of final projects doesn’t feel like the thing to do at home.

“Right now, where people have severed these habits and now they are trying to do everything intentionally, that is exhausting,” Labrecque said. “Doing something automatically doesn’t take effort, but doing something intentionally does.

"It makes a lot of sense to me that when a lot of people are already stressed out about other things, even the normal things they do day to day feel more overwhelming because they are having to put effort into every single one of them rather than doing them automatically as they have in the past.”

It may seem too late or unnecessary to establish a routine now that school is coming to end after finals, but people are at risk of developing a mental illness without a routine in place.

The coping mechanisms that were once part of people's routines have been lost along with the other good and bad habits, which makes people more susceptible to replacing them with unhealthy ones.

“You lost some of your good habits, but it should also mean you lost some bad habits," Labrecque said. "So this is an opportunity to think about, 'What do I really want? What do I really care about?' And then start building on those intentions.

"The key of habit formation is to regularly do it in a stable context so making that schedule with those things you really care about being part of it.”

If setting up a consistent schedule seems overwhelming or isn’t helping, OSU’s Counseling Services are still there to help.

Without a clinical diagnosis, students can receive treatment by calling to set up an appointment. Students are able to receive a free intake evaluation and meet with licensed counselors to help them in whatever way they need, and the first four sessions are free.

“The benefits would be preventing it from being at the levels of diagnosable or the levels that it is really starting to interfere with your life,” Niccum said. “Perhaps you pick up some healthy coping skills or you work through some things that are bothering you and you can decrease the impact that whatever you are struggling with is having or was having and you can keep it from escalating.”

It is important to keep in mind that OSU counselors are only linceced in Oklahoma, so unless the student is physically present in the state, they can’t be treated. They still have the option of working with MD Live to get the help they need wherever they are.

The stress, lack of connection because of social distancing and the overall situation is having an effect on people. It is important that people aren't alone.

The social distancing orders are meant to keep people physically away from each other, but connectedness between loved ones can still be achieved through other means such as video chats or phone calls.

“Right now, that is our only source of connectedness, so we are just relying on that instead of face to face interactions,” Niccum said. “Humans are a very social species. I think this point in time, we’re all realizing how communinal of a society we are. We derive meaning, pleasure and all the emotions we are in connection with other people quite often, so to stay socially connected is just so important for our mental health and overall life satisfaction.”