Coronavirus crisis brings wave of depression and anxiety to Tampa Bay

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The Tampa Bay area has seen a wave of residents seeking help for anxiety and depression spurred by the coronavirus pandemic, resulting in thousands of more crisis calls, counseling appointments and visits psychiatric.

About three times the usual number of people report worsening mental health from the virus, said Dr. Glenn Currier, chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience at the University of South Florida School of Medicine. More than half said in June that their mental health had been negatively affected, according to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a non-profit organization focused on national health issues.

Patients at USF clinics served before the pandemic express more anxiety, he said. And calls to the Tampa Bay Crisis Center’s free, 24-hour counseling line sometimes push 400 a week, double the usual amount, manager Mordecai Dixon said.

BayCare Health System’s behavioral health physicians have seen approximately 33,000 patients since the start of the pandemic, added Dr. Harold Levine, director and chief medical officer of these services. This is about three times normal in that time.

Local demand reflects what is happening nationwide as people grapple with the virus that has killed more than 210,000 Americans since March. It has also put millions of people out of work and disrupted education, businesses and regular routines across the country.

In a June survey, 40 percent of adults in the United States reported experiencing “dramatically elevated adverse mental health conditions” or substance abuse, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Eleven percent had seriously considered suicide.

Young adults, racial minorities, essential workers and unpaid adult caregivers reported disproportionately worse outcomes, along with increased substance use and suicidal thoughts, according to the report. The stress has been worse for those who are single, as well as for those who have less financial security.

The effects of the pandemic are magnified in Florida, a hot spot for cases where more than 700,000 people have contracted the virus and more than 15,000 have died. The state – an important battleground for a historically controversial presidential election – is also prepared for hurricane season.

Dr Glenn Currier [ Courtesy of USF Health ]

“We have a perfect storm of things going on,” said Currier, the USF medic. “It’s a quadruple whammy.”

There are five areas of life that help lead human beings, and COVID-19 has disrupted them all, Levine explained. Health, relationships with family, relationships with friends, work and finances and leisure have all taken different forms.

Some people have been unemployed for months. Others have been isolated, forced to virtually connect with loved ones, if at all. Gym memberships were canceled, friends stopped kissing, and events like concerts and weddings were postponed.

The forced changes have made people more lonely, Levine said. Patients report trouble sleeping, a sense of dread, and a feeling that life will never get better again. They care about themselves and others, and they care about how the pandemic will shape the future.

Dr Harold Levine
Dr Harold Levine [ Courtesy of BayCare Health System ]

“People keep losing their train of thought and wondering why,” Levine said, “and that’s because mental illness affects cognition and concentration. Anxiety and depression preoccupy the brain, so those affected by the disorders pay less attention to other activities.

Depressed people sort of shut themselves off and withdraw into their thoughts and feelings, Currier added. Those who suffer from anxiety become hyper-vigilant, panicked, and sometimes angry and violent, which could lead to injury to themselves or to others.

At the crisis center, calls increased in midsummer as people suffered losses from the pandemic, said Dixon, director of the association’s gateway services. Only about 25 people answer the phone, so they often take several very stressful calls a day.

“It was hard enough without the extra layer of the pandemic,” Dixon said. “There are a lot of people out there trying to get help, and we’re doing our best to reach them all.”

The center has also referred callers to trauma counseling and talk therapy, which are the main ways doctors say they are treating mental illnesses linked to the pandemic. Psychotropic drugs, which affect brain function, mood and behavior, are sometimes used, but not as often.

Most appointments are done virtually, which has reduced the no-show rate by at least 10% at BayCare, Levine said. This setup presents fewer obstacles for people who might have difficulty getting to the doctor.

“In therapy we have to ask ourselves, how do we cope? How do we deal with the fact that we are afraid? The doctor said. “We don’t know when it’s going to end, so we have to develop new rhythms.”

Editor’s Note: This story includes a discussion of suicide. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat/ or call the Tampa Bay Crisis Center at 2-1-1.

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