The Journal Gazette
Sunday, November 29, 2020 1:00 am


Mental health need not be virus' victim

We've known for nearly a year there are simple ways to slow the spread of COVID-19.

But the continued presence of the coronavirus is helping to spread other, less obvious illnesses such as depression, anxiety and loneliness.

We have spent months cooped up in our homes, away from friends and loved ones, and experts say the measures meant to ensure physical safety have taken a toll on mental health. It's a dangerous situation, particularly for older people who might be quarantined by themselves, and we should work hard to keep ourselves and our neighbors, family and friends mentally and physically healthy.

Isolated seniors face a higher risk of death and health problems including depression, according to a National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine report published in February. A separate study published in August by the Elsevier Public Health Emergency Collection found the pandemic “is associated with highly significant levels of psychological distress that, in many cases, would meet the threshold for clinical relevance.”

Suicides in the U.S. also are on the rise, the Washington Post reports.

Michelle Starnes, who manages the LifeBridge Senior Program at Parkview Wabash Hospital, said the ongoing need to shelter in place means higher risk for residents 65 and older for mental health problems.

“For someone older who has been isolated for months on end, coping mechanisms may be wearing very thin, and the arrival of the holiday season may significantly increase their stress level,” Starnes wrote in a blog post that soon will be available on Parkview's website. “Because of their stage of life, each person may be dealing with multiple factors, any of which can be pushing them toward depression during this time of tension and uncertainty.”

Factors include mourning family or friends, caregiving for a sick spouse and feeling excluded as life goes on for others.

The LifeBridge program offers outpatient counseling to people 65 and older, and Starnes said in an interview last week that “isolation is the most detrimental thing you can do to your mental health.”

Lessening those effects can include phone calls and video chats with loved ones, she said, or dropping off food or gifts at their homes.

“It can be that simple, just picking up the phone,” Starnes said. “Social connectedness is really important.”

That's true for Tom Kaough, 82. The former teacher hasn't seen much for months except the inside of his downtown apartment.

“(It's) the biggest thrill of my life when I go to the doctor,” he said.

Ceiara Bright, 28, of Senior Helpers – which offers in-home care – is a certified nursing assistant who has been working since August to help Kaough with things such as household chores. Their professional relationship has expanded to also include an element of companionship.

Bright said Kaough taught her to cook. Kaough said he thinks of Bright as a daughter.

“She's a positive person,” Kaough said. “That's what people like me need.”

Doctors have known since the beginning of the pandemic that its effects would stretch beyond physicality. Former Allen County Health Commissioner Dr. Deborah McMahan organized news conferences in the spring to discuss mental health, and the state rolled out in April to provide resources for counseling and other mental health services.

Like the disease that so far has killed more than 5,300 Hoosiers, the effects of the pandemic are not going away.

Continue to take precautions. Check on your neighbors. Call your loved ones. Ask for help if you need it.

For help

• Parkview Behavioral Health: 260-373-7500 or 1-800-285-8439

• St. Joseph Behavioral Health: 260-425-3606 or 1-800-694-9034

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