NEW BRITAIN – With election anxiety on top of pandemic stress, the magnified pressure is causing an uptick in mental health concerns nationwide, according to a new national survey conducted by the American Psychological Association.
The survey, conducted among 3,409 adults, found that nearly 8 in 10 adults said the coronavirus pandemic is a significant source of stress in their lives, while 3 in 5 said the number of issues America faces is overwhelming to them. Nearly 1 in 5 adults said their mental health is worse than it was at this time last year. By generation, 34% of Gen Z adults report worse mental health, followed by Gen X, 21%, millennials, 19%, boomers, 12% and older adults, 8%.
At the local level, medical experts are experiencing an increase in clients seeking mental health services for reasons shown in the survey. They said it is important for people to give themselves time away from too much information exposure, step away from computer screens, and talk it out.
The compounding anxieties are similar because they all deal with uncertainties, said Cristina Meehan, founder and executive director of Liberty Integrated Behavioral Health in New Britain. “There’s a lot of anticipation for change, but people are not sure what’s going on. It’s a lot of sitting and waiting, and the underlying uncertainty is something that people have a difficult time with.”
Dealing with rising numbers of covid-19 cases that could cause another shutdown is at the forefront of many people’s minds, as well as whether potential vaccines will be effective when made available, when the election results will be settled, and various ongoing political unrest and social justice movements.
An APA poll showed that 68% of Americans said the 2020 presidential election is a source of stress, a jump from 52% during the 2016 presidential election.
Because there seems to be no end in sight, the freedom and joy people tend to experience after change, such as an election, has been taken away, said Meehan, who is also a board certified psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner. “In general, human nature wants to have a direction or guidance, to know and to have answers. There’s a lot of fear because people don’t feel like they have control anymore.”
Lisa Coates, operations manager at the Bristol Hospital Counseling Center, agreed. “No one has been spared from feeling anxious, depressed, or overwhelmed by what’s been happening,” she said. “Every bit of normalcy has changed for us and the unease caused by drastic change is hard to deal with when people are already tired from everything else.”
Since March, Coates saw a rise from people who historically never had to deal with mental health situations to come to the hospital for help. There is also a significant increase of people not being able to sleep at night, feeling extremely anxious because there are no outlets for internal angst, a higher rate of substance abuse, and various unhealthy coping mechanisms.
Referencing to the election, Coates said there is an extra layer of uncertainty this time around because people are finding it hard to know who to trust, whether it’s the news media or family and friends, as well as information overload.
“That stress trickles down to everyday life and everyone is feeling it because it has become a moral election,” she said. “The general sense used to be if you and your friends voted opposite, you can still be friends. This time, there are questions to every single decision you’re making because you’re not just voting for a president anymore. Can we still be friends if we didn’t vote for the same candidate? What was once a routine event is no longer routine.”
Meehan said it doesn’t matter what political party voters went for, the anxiety is felt by all. “I have clients from both sides of the coin who just want a change from a negative situation,” she said. “Regardless of who you wanted as president, there is still a sense of hesitation. Are we going to shut down again? What are other countries doing? The stress is happening all over again.”
Both experts saw an increase in clients because of the pandemic and as elections got closer, there was also a rise in conversations about the current political climate. Especially for high school and college students, who hopes to see less violence and brutality against each other.
Coates and Meehan emphasized that an important avenue of de-stressing is minimizing news intake.
“It’s hard to shut it down and yet it’s one of the best ways to shut off anxiety,” said Meehan. “There’s this sense that you have to know everything that’s going on, but you really don’t. We’ve forgotten how to disconnect and we need to practice that more.”
A reminder that self-care isn’t always easy is also a vital point for Meehan. “It’s like not going to the gym for a while then you start it back up again, your muscles are sore and it’s difficult. But after a few times it gets easier, you get used to it, and that’s how you can practice disconnecting,” she said.
For Coates, her first line of defense is always to remind people that they are not alone. If people find themselves getting sad, thinking negative thoughts or becoming anxious – get up and move, step away from the computer, get some fresh air, do breathing exercises, meditate, or find a creative project that suits them to refocus their energy.
“You will go back with a clearer mind and be more productive,” she said. “I remind people that this will not last forever. We just have to get through today and this moment.”
An unexpected positive thing that came out from the pandemic is easier access to mental health services, said Meehan, who has been seeing clients through telehealth virtual platforms, giving her a wider reach to those in need.
“This could be a step in the direction of giving people more mental health access,” she said. “That’s the silver lining.”
Coping with stress in a healthy way can help you with various anxieties. Here are some tips from local experts:
- Step away from the computer frequently
- Take breaks from consuming news stories
- Create a ‘me space’ at home with items that bring comfort
- Practice mediation and deep breathing
- Exercise regularly
- Get fresh air when possible
- Connect with someone you can talk to
- Seek out a new hobby
- Use telehealth services or hotlines to connect with experts