The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on metro-Atlantans’ mental health as the area and entire world grappled with a threat invisible to the naked eye.
In the past 14 months, Georgians had to isolate from friends and families, businesses shut down and millions of people lost their jobs. As of May 19, Georgia has seen 891,502 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 17,849 deaths due to COVID-19.
More than 42% of people surveyed by the US Census Bureau in December 2020 reported symptoms of anxiety or depression in December, an increase from 11% the previous year.
Diane Schaab, MS, LPC, is a behavioral health therapist with Cancer Treatment Centers of America and says the pandemic exacerbated physical, financial and emotional challenges.
“People that have never experienced anxiety or depression are struggling and often do not know how to manage these foreign feelings,” Schaab said. “The counseling profession has seen such an influx in need; they are struggling to meet the demand.”
Stuart Winborne, director of the Georgia chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, also says the pandemic has created varied levels of stress for people in different ways. People were uncertain about their future, were anxious over the virus and personal finances.
“People were feeling very isolated, especially with the quarantine people living alone who were completely isolated,” Winborne said. “That that did lead to some people feeling disconnected or depressed and there is data that shows that people did experience like higher levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms.”
It may be a year or longer until data and research are available to understand the entire impact of COVID-19 on suicide and mental health. Research shows there can be a time lag in the manifestation of distress even months after the acuity of a traumatic or stressful period.
While the COVID-19 pandemic and its ramifications do not cause suicide, for some people, pandemic-related experiences may contribute to their risk.
According to AFSP, it is possible, though not pre-determined, that we could experience an increase in suicide risk as the immediate COVID-19 threat lessens and in the aftermath period if community cohesion diminishes and if less attention is paid to intentional social connections, proactive resilience and mental health self-care, and the importance at key times of engaging in mental health treatment and crisis care.
To combat rocky mental health during the pandemic, some businesses decided to address it with employees. RO Hospitality owner Ryan Pernice said his company already focused on mental health before the pandemic, but COVID-19 made it a necessity.
Qualified employees of RO Hospitality’s three north Fulton restaurants — Osteria Mattone, Table and Main and Coalition Food and Beverage — receive paid time off, healthcare, 401k savings opportunities and even pet bereavement pay during the loss of a beloved dog or cat.
“The pandemic increased our attention to employee welfare, and our history of transparency and communication with our team throughout the crisis attests to that,” Pernice said. “We’ve closed the restaurants three times in the last 18 months for “Mental Health Days” after particularly rough periods. We have another one scheduled in June.”
Pernice has also altered operating hours to limit the amount of back-to-back shifts the team, particularly the cooks, had to work to cover business volume.
Longtime server at Osteria Mattone Zac Reed, 37, said he feels mostly the same as he did before the pandemic.
“I don’t know that my mental health was optimal or that I was taking care of myself as well as I should have been,” Reed said, “but I don’t know that I would say I had any major undiagnosed issues. Like many, cost of care is something that has kept me from even really pursuing such a thing.”
Aside from pandemic fatigue, Reed said most of his stress came from worrying about his coworkers.
“As things progressed and we quickly got very good at our curbside operation, I was left missing and worrying about those who weren’t as fortunate to still be working, more so in the industry at large than my coworkers who were let go,” Reed said. “So many people in this industry were just left to fend for themselves.”
As of Dec. 1, 2020, more than 110,000 eating and drinking places across the nation were closed for business temporarily, or for good. In addition to the restaurant industry being hit hard, the COVID-19 also took its toll on the arts.
Before the pandemic struck, Atlanta actor and stunt performer Montgomery Davis was already struggling with anxiety and Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder, a type of eating disorder characterized by highly selective eating habits, disturbed feeding patterns or both. Davis said she relapsed the week before everything shut down and her mental health declined the first few months. Not only is Davis immuno-compromised, but her father had also been going through cancer treatment.
“I had to stay put and I couldn’t see anyone,” she said. “And while the break has been great in some aspects, in others it’s been super difficult. I’m still terrified even fully vaccinated to get exposed. I don’t want to lose all the progress I’ve made, I don’t want to make my father sick. I still struggle with explaining why I have to be so cautious. It’s quite literally life or death.”
Davis said she has turned to regular therapy to help her cope with the last year. She has also pushed herself to be more authentic and honest about her mental health to help her cope.
“I think we all have to remember this year/the continuing pandemic is and has changed all of us mentally,” Davis said. “It’s helped some people grow, it’s destroyed others. Neither is better, neither is worse. It’s complex.”
While there is no doubt the pandemic has had negative affects on mental health, the topic of mental health is being talked about more. Calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline had a 6% increase in contact volume in July 2020 compared to the same time period in 2019.
“I think there’s that positive side of things is that obviously the pandemic did cause some mental health challenges like depression, anxiety, the flipside is that people were talking more about mental health — people who’ve never before talked about mental health,” Winborne said. “People were worried about it.”
Beyond the pandemic, continuing the honest conversations around mental health will still be important to reducing the risk of depression and suicide.
“You don’t want to stop staying connected and keeping mental health on your mind just because the pandemic is coming to an end,” Winborne said. “People still struggle with their mental health pandemic, or no pandemic. We want to look out for one another.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 and 1-888-628-9454 for Spanish, or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.