The Journal Gazette
Thursday, January 14, 2021 1:00 am

COVID winter stirs anxiety, depression

Conner Tighe | For The Journal Gazette

From the pandemic, elections and continued isolation from loved ones, anxiety has continued to grow among residents across the country.

As the winter months arrive, that anxiety has risen higher with potential for COVID-19 cases to spike and worries about restrictions hurting businesses and our way of life even as vaccines have begun to be distributed.

Local health counselor Crystal Kelly expects depression cases to rise through the winter.

“Everything has turned upside-down,” she says. “This is all different. It feels weird.”

Kelly has been a mental health counselor nearly 11 years and is assisting patients at Oaktree Guidance & Wellness Center in Fort Wayne, specializing in trauma care.

She saw an increase in depression and anxiety patients as winter approached and as the potential for another lockdown grew. Kelly is seeing the pandemic affect schools, with teachers and students in her sessions.

Wednesdays are considered “Wellness Wednesdays” in Fort Wayne Community Schools, where students can review, reflect and refresh with teachers, who offer extra assistance.

“Virtual learning is a challenge for all, especially as this is our first year with remote learning,” spokeswoman Krista Stockman said.

Stockman recommends students get away from the screen when they can by reading a book, playing a game, taking a walk, cooking a meal or writing a letter to a loved one. She doesn't expect students to be on screens all day if future restrictions limit in-person activities, because students will have independent and group work time.

For people already dealing with mental conditions, the pandemic can add additional stresses and issues.

“It feels so lonely right now,” local resident Kristie Youngblood says. “As someone who has bipolar depression, I feel alone in that daily.”

Youngblood worries about the winter months, specifically the possibility of another lockdown. She attends group therapy weekly, where she says she pushes herself to be honest, and show understanding toward others going through similar times.

Youngblood says COVID-19 and its restrictions, such as limits on physical contact like hugging, has taken a toll on her.

“You don't realize how a smile can change your entire day until you can't see one or be seen with one,” Youngblood says. “It's a new loneliness and emptiness I've never experienced before.”

When the pandemic began in March, Kelly began to transfer her clients over to virtual communication with the app TeleHelp, a platform similar to Zoom that allows virtual calls connecting two people – in this case, Kelly and her patients.

Kelly encourages those seeking help to call or schedule an appointment and focus on themselves as this situation has forced many people to.

“You can't pour from an empty cup,” she says. “I encourage people to acknowledge how they feel.”

Kelly says it's essential to be self-aware when you're feeling overwhelmed, stressed and depressed, so you have something to counteract those emotions. Engaging in activities that make you “feel good” inside and out will help.

Mental health counselor Victoria Prokop of Blackbird Counseling, 4656 W. Jefferson Blvd., Suite 210, also has seen an influx of patients experiencing newfound anxiety, as well as a sense of empathy for others.

“Symptoms of grief are possible and should be addressed just as the anxiety is,” Prokop says.

She recommends people practice self-care, get recommended sleep, be aware of their support systems and maintain a healthy relationship with foods that give natural energy.

Front-line workers must remain vigilant even as they see the pandemic up close, which could inspire additional anxiety.

Parkview Health director Bruce Buttermore says the health system's staff has access to counseling services through its Employee Assistance Program. The program benefited workers before the pandemic, but the program has stationed counselors on floors with COVID-19 patients for the staff's easy access.

Parkview's human resource team has also created a concierge service for co-workers on leave for health reasons. This service offers grocery deliveries as well as other necessary home items.

The program's manager, Kenneth Shields, says people live in two concentric circles, called the circle of influence and the circle of concern. The circle of influence includes things in our lives that we can control, while the circle of concern deals with things we cannot control.

“In times like this, when there's so much we can't control, it helps to identify the things we can control, Shields says. “You can control how you take care of yourself, how much time you spend on social media or watching the news or how much time you spend interacting with family and friends.”

Shields recommends getting outside into nature as it possesses healing abilities. He shares an analogy about the serotinous pine cone, sealed with a tough resin that only a forest fire can open. It reminds us that in a time of trauma, there's opportunity for growth, he says.

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