Michigan Association of Health Plans

Mental health and coping in the time of COVID

“I hear you.”

Often it helps just to know you are not alone in struggling through a tough time, wrestling with difficult emotions. Living through the first pandemic of most of our lifetimes has more people than ever experiencing depression, anxiety or other mental illnesses, says Milwaukee County’s Medical Director of Crisis Services Dr. Tony Thrasher.

“Some of the things we talk about may be very emotional, they can be very personal,” he says. “You may in some of these scenarios, see yourself or a friend or a loved one or a family member, or somebody that you have worked with before in the past.” 

Thrasher, a psychiatrist specializing in emergency and crisis medicine, describes what people are going through in this pandemic using the Kubler Ross stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. It’s not always these five, he adds, and not always in this order. But very often the process of grieving does involve a majority of them. 

“When I approached the pandemic, I approached this from a perspective of grief,” says Thrasher. “We are grieving for a life we once lived. And that can mean from things that we were used to, such as going out to a restaurant after work and talking with friends, or it could mean missing out on hosting a 40 to 50 person Thanksgiving that we really look forward to every year.”

While some people are still in denial that there is a pandemic, Thrasher says most individuals he works with “are now somewhere in those fourth and fifth components, a depression kind of knowing that the pandemic is here and how it’s affecting us and heading towards an acceptance of how we can approach this. … That doesn’t mean the other stages vanish. But it does mean it gives us a more healthy, adaptive way of coping.”

Thrasher, speaking to the Milwaukee Rotary Club on Nov. 24, quoted from the American Journal of Public Health’s Oct. 2020 issue, which read, “The social isolation, financial hardship and fear associated with this pandemic could present a perfect storm for public mental health in the US.” 

Thrasher would edit the word “could,” saying straight up that the pandemic has created a perfect storm. To wit, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data shows that mental health symptoms and COVID cases are tied so closely together that a state that had twice as many COVID diagnoses also had twice as many mental health issues. 

“The two subcategories of mental illness that have shown the greatest rise since the pandemic have been anxiety disorders, and depressive disorders,” Thrasher adds. “There are many other disorders which we treat which are being complicated by the pandemic, but we aren’t necessarily seeing an increase in, say, schizophrenia disorder or obsessive compulsive disorder.”

There is a higher rate of positive COVID-19 tests among people diagnosed with mental illness, he says, and worse outcomes for people with mental illness who are hospitalized with coronavirus. There is no explanation yet, Thrasher says, for why coronavirus outcomes are more adverse for those with mental illnesses.

This article originally appeared in the Wisconsin Examiner, read more here.