As local young adults struggle with pandemic related mental health problems, local mental health professionals say there is help available.

Ashlie Fanetti

Despite+most+services+being+virtual+due+to+the+COVID-19+pandemic%2C+the+UW-Eau+Claire+Counseling+Services+Office+is+still+open+for+crisis+sessions.+The+office+is+located+in+room+2122+on+the+second+floor+of+Vicki+Lord+Larson+Hall+on+campus.+%28%C2%A9AshlieFanetti2020%29

Ashlie Fanetti

Despite most services being virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the UW-Eau Claire Counseling Services Office is still open for crisis sessions. The office is located in room 2122 on the second floor of Vicki Lord Larson Hall on campus. (©AshlieFanetti2020)

 

By Ashlie Fanetti

 

When the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire sent students home in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Katrina Berg was feeling good mentally. She was not all that worried because she had moved back in with her parents and was at a low risk to contract COVID-19.

All of that changed when September rolled around, and Berg headed back to campus where the rates of COVID-19 are higher. Berg’s mental health went downhill.

She did everything she could to stay healthy, but Berg was nervous and had an intense fear of catching COVID-19.

On Oct. 1, Berg’s fear came true. She tested positive for COVID-19.

As Berg dialed the numbers of her close contacts and told them that they too would need to quarantine, the guilt became overwhelming.

“That feeling of guilt really ate me alive,” Berg said.

Berg felt so bad that she said her guilt and anxiety were almost worse than the physical symptoms of COVID-19.

Berg’s feelings of anxiety, fear and stress are not unique.

Experts say there has been an increase in mental health issues among young adults as the pandemic has dragged on.

Berg and young adults like her may feel hopeless and alone in their struggles, but area mental health professionals say help is available.

There are a wide variety of mental health services available including therapy, telemedicine and online resources. Along with these services, mental health professionals recommend practicing self-mental health care.

An epidemic during a pandemic

It is no secret that mental health problems are prevalent among young adults. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports one in five students suffer from some sort of mental health ailment during their college years. The COVID-19 pandemic has put even more stress on young adults, so the number of young adults reporting mental health problems is even larger.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released survey data on the mental health state of U.S. adults. The survey covers a national sample of adults and specifically asked about their mental health up to June 2020.

The number of respondents who answered yes to mental health illness symptoms is alarming to mental health professionals, particularly among young adults.

Among young adults ages 18 to 24 surveyed, 62.9% answered “yes” when asked if they have experienced symptoms of anxiety and depression during the national lockdown. Even more worrisome, 25.5% of young adults said they had seriously considered suicide during the month of June.

Young adults’ mental health is being negatively affected by pandemic-related issues nationwide, including in the Eau Claire area.

Emily Duch, a mental health practitioner, said that her office is seeing more mental health visits than any other type, and more so this year than any other year prior.

Riley McGrath, Director of UW-Eau Claire Counseling Services says anxiety and depression have been the number one and two concerns for his clients for many years. The concern is higher now as people experience fear, worry and grief rooted in the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Mayo Clinic experts, extreme fear and an inability to let go of worry are common symptoms of anxiety, along with overthinking plans and solutions to all possible worst-case outcomes, difficulty handling uncertainty and being unable to relax.

There are also a number of physical symptoms that may arise with anxiety including nausea, sweating, fatigue, trouble sleeping, trembling and muscle tension.

“People that are pre-disposed to anxiety, I think they are beginning to feel even more anxious due to the pandemic,” McGrath said. “Anxiety is not only because of the pandemic, but it is exacerbated by some of these pandemic-related concerns and unknowns.”

This is the case for Eau Claire resident Mandy Babb.

“My mental health was not great to begin with and the prolonged isolation made it much more difficult to do the things I would normally do to cope in healthy ways,” Babb said.

Before the pandemic hit, Babb would spend quite a bit of time with her friends having monthly dinners, floating on the river and celebrating birthdays and holidays. She can no longer do these things due to social distancing measures, and it has had a huge impact on her mental health.

“The absence of that can be crushing sometimes,” Babb said.

Babb has gotten help for her mental health before the pandemic hit and after. She sees a counselor every few weeks and has been prescribed medication to control her anxiety.

In 2019, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services reported that out of a population of about 103,000 people, 1,749 individuals in Eau Claire County received mental health services through the county programs, not including visits to private mental health practices.

McGrath said that in the last three years, he has seen a dramatic increase in the number of clients his office is seeing. This has not been the case since the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“We did see a decrease in the number of students coming to see us when the pandemic hit and we switched to teletherapy,” McGrath said.

McGrath said that the decrease in people coming to see him does not mean young people experiencing less anxiety and depression, but just that their mind is focused on other things besides getting counseling. In addition, some people are not comfortable with teletherapy.

 

McGrath said that young people were dealing with a lot of everyday stressors before, but now with the pandemic, there are all new stressors that can trigger anxiety and depression.

For Berg, new stressors stemmed from her COVID-19 diagnosis.

During her quarantine, Berg was still expected to do all her schoolwork while sick with symptoms. While her symptoms were not too severe, she was still exhausted. Berg is now well behind in all of her classes and is struggling to catch up.

Berg’s stress and anxiety was triggered by her COVID-19 diagnosis and school, other people are struggling with the new “normal” during the pandemic.

“I haven’t seen all my friends at once in eight months,” Babb said.

Babb lives alone and due to the state recommendations to stay home, has been unable to see her friends and build up the support system she feels she needs to cope with her mental health. On top of it all, her job has kept her really busy and stressed recently.

Eau Claire resident Kristoffer Martin is an essential worker and has also struggled with his mental health through the pandemic. He works part-time at a hotel and works with people every day, which adds to his pandemic stress.

“The general problems that arise are due to other people not respecting rules, thinking they’re above them, or that they’re not necessary because the pandemic is a hoax,” Martin said.

Martin said that he has experienced a lot of hate and negative actions because of other people’s stress.

“In this regard, other people’s stress leads to my own,” Martin said.

Help in the virtual world

There is help out there to deal with stressful situations and anxiety and depression, but it just might look different than what people are used to.

Before the pandemic, clients who came to McGrath’s office would come talk through their problems and find comfort in the fact that they could leave these problems in his office. Now that therapy sessions are done virtually, this can be difficult for some people as they participate while in a stressful environment.

“It can be harder to disconnect from what you’re talking about and leave it in that space in the virtual world,” McGrath said.

Despite this, McGrath said that most clients with whom he has worked with virtually this year get more and more comfortable with teletherapy the more they participate in it. They often find it more helpful than not having therapy at all.

McGrath said that logistically, doing teletherapy can be tricky sometimes, but for the most part it goes smoothly.

He understands that some people are not comfortable with virtual therapy, so his office has worked hard to provide resources for people looking for help that they can do on their own. These resources are available on virtual platforms such as YouTube.

Helping yourself

Whether young adults seek help from a counselor or not, it is equally important that young people strive to take care of their own mental health through self-care.

Duch said that taking care of yourself is one of the best ways to get through these uncertain times.

“I always recommend focusing on getting good sleep, engaging in adequate physical activity and eating a balanced diet. Also, limiting poor coping mechanisms such as overeating, alcohol use and other substance use,” Duch said.

Practicing regular self-care is good for your body and mind and can make you more resilient when it comes to dealing with stress.

“Self-care is a good distraction from stress, but it is also just better for your body to do things that you enjoy,” McGrath said.

Self-care looks different for everybody.

For Berg and Babb, it is about keeping connected with friends and safely surrounding themselves with people who make them happy and really spending quality time doing fun activities.

Martin likes to take time to himself to read, write or play video games to mentally unwind.

“Really this is just me tuning out the stressfulness of the real world for a time, taking a step back and doing something that I want to do that is entertaining or fun in spite of the issues we’re all facing,” Martin said.

No matter how much you take care of yourself though, mental health professionals stress that it’s okay to ask for help to get the weight of stress off one’s shoulders.

Many people struggle in silence and feel like their mental health cannot get better. McGrath said studies show that is not true and that mental health can get better.

McGrath said that many of his clients have been feeling like there is no hope for their pandemic related mental health issues. The bulletin board outside of the UW-Eau Claire Counseling Services office aims to change those feelings. There are many messages of hope on the board for people to take as they pass by and they and in turn, they leave a message of hope for someone else. (©AshlieFanetti2020)

“Putting yourself first is hard for some people, but it is really what is needed to get better,” McGrath said.

The pandemic pushed Babb to seek help for her mental health. She has been seeing a counselor since before the pandemic, but recently got her anxiety medically treated and it has helped her cope better.

“Reaching out to a doctor for regular health checkups, and anxiety and depression medication, was new for me,” Babb said. “I’m very glad I did.”

* If you or someone you know is struggling, there are professionals available 24/7 on these hotlines:

  • Crisis Text Line – Text HOPE to 741741
  • Mental Health & AODA Crisis Line – 1-888-552-6642
  • National Suicide Prevention Line – 1-800-273-8255
  • National Sexual Assault Hotline – 1-800-656-4673
  • National Domestic Violence Hotline – 1-800-799-7233
  • TREVOR (LGBTQIA) Lifeline – 1-866-488-7386
  • Trans Lifeline – 1-877-565-8860
  • Veterans Crisis Line – 1-800-273-8255