AARPColumnists

Reimagine Everything: Omicron Is Adding Fuel to Mental Health Crisis – Part 1

By March 4, 2022April 27th, 2022No Comments

Anxiety and depression are becoming chronic problems as the pandemic drags on.

Scott Tanaka

It’s been nearly two years since Covid-19 turned life as we knew it upside down, sending rates of depression and anxiety soaring. Then in November of last year, just when many people began to feel that the pandemic was easing, the wildly infectious omicron strain brought new fears of illness, as well as despair: Will this thing ever end?

“Our brains are not designed to live under chronic stress,” said Karen Hahn, 54, a social worker in Washington, D.C., who says she has upped her dosage of antidepressants in recent weeks to try to lift herself out of a self-defeating depression-inertia loop worsened by omicron. “I’m laying on the couch napping all day Saturday going, ‘Yeah, if I could just put my tennis shoes on and go outside and walk for an hour I’d feel better.’ But, I can’t even do that. I just want to nap.” As a social worker myself, I want to say that what Karen is going through is understandable given the circumstances.

Americans’ mental health needs during the pandemic already began raising alarms months ago. Last year, the National Alliance on Mental Illness HelpLine, which offers support for mental health and substance abuse issues, received 1,027,381 calls. That’s up 23 percent from 2020 — when call volume was up 27 percent over 2019.

But the emotional strain has grown more acute in recent months, health experts say. Texas’ statewide mental health Covid support line, for example, has seen a 20 percent increase in calls since early December, says Greg Hansch, a social worker and executive director of the Texas chapter of NAMI.

While part of that uptick in calls for help was driven by the stress of the holiday season, he notes, it’s also related to “the uncertainty of the omicron variant.” Anxiety is often stoked by uncertainty, says Hansch, who believes that the pandemic’s general unpredictability “has been a big driver of a lot of the mental health concerns of the last few years.”

He also cites older people’s genuine anxiety about getting sick, since they’re more likely to suffer negative effects from a Covid-19 infection, as well as grief, with so many lives lost and experiences missed (weddings, grandchildren’s births). There’s also “guilt and shame, for people who do contract Covid-19 feeling like they’ve failed in some way,” he added.

As we near the start of the pandemic’s third year (it officially began on March 11, 2020, based on the World Health Organization’s declaration), nerves are more frayed than ever, says Katherine Gold, M.D., an associate professor in family medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School and a primary care physician. “We’re absolutely seeing just exhaustion from the pandemic,” she reported. “People are tired of isolating and tired of all the restrictions and just tired of the fear of getting Covid — not only patients with existing mental health conditions, but also people who don’t really have a diagnosis of a mental health condition are feeling increasingly isolated or anxious.”

She and other experts say the persistent pandemic is responsible for exacerbating two particularly big risk factors for mental health issues:

Isolation

Reza Hosseini Ghomi, M.D., a geriatric neuropsychiatrist in Billings, Mont., says he’s seeing more depression and anxiety among his older patients, sometimes as a result of the loneliness that can come with isolation. It “manifests typically as either anxiety or depression. [There’s] a lot of sadness, hopelessness, ‘Oh, this is never going to end.’ And a lot of sleep issues.”

Chronic Stress

Many people have felt higher levels of anxiety for many months now, making it a chronic problem with potentially serious health consequences (among other things, it can suppress the immune system). “People are very resilient — we tend to recover from even deeply traumatic events,” said Ahmad. “But that process of recovery becomes more difficult if the stress does not let up.”

With the ongoing omicron variant, he adds, “I worry that people have not had time to recover from previous waves, and that this is going to lead to even more people experiencing some of the most common symptoms associated with stress disorders.”

Those include:

  • Intrusive thoughts or dreams associated with the traumatic experience
  • Social withdrawal (or avoiding items, people or places associated with the experience)
  • Negative mood
  • Hypervigilance (the sensation of being constantly on guard and easily startled)
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Low energy

I know talking about mental health isn’t always easy in the Japanese American community, it hasn’t always been easy for myself either.

I want to share, though, that I have greatly benefited from seeing a therapist at different times in my life.

Most recently, I worked with a licensed clinical social worker to help me process the passing of my grandfather due to Covid-19 and the struggles of not being able to visit my family for over a year. Seeing my mental health improve while in therapy is one of the reasons I chose to study social work.

My social work program allowed me to focus both on gerontology and adult mental health. My hope is that younger generations will consider going into the mental health field. Now more than ever, we need more Asian Americans in this field. There is value in working with mental health professionals that come from similar cultural backgrounds because of shared experiences. In my next article, I will share information on finding professional help and other resources.

Scott Tanaka is a member of the JACL Washington, D.C., chapter and is a policy, research, and international affairs adviser at AARP.