OPINION: Under stress: Pandemic’s affects beyond those who contracted virus

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected people well beyond those who actually have contracted the viral disease. Health officials note that fear of the disease, disruption of routines, isolation caused by stay-at-home orders, school and business closures and other factors have raised or worsened depression and other mental and emotional health problems.

It has hit younger Americans especially hard; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that during 2020, the proportion of mental-health-related emergency room visits among patients ages 12-17 increased 31% compared to the year before. It was driven primarily by young girls, with as much as a 51% increase in some months over the same month the previous year. The American Academy of Pediatrics reported similar results, with a 34% increase of patients ages 12-21 reporting having suicidal thoughts in 2020 over 2019.

Attempts to return to old routines also has imposed stresses on many people. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill canceled classes on Tuesday and held a “wellness day” to advise students in response to recent on-campus suicides.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University note that adults must deal with the same risk factors, in addition to others such as the economic stress caused by loss of work or the cost of dealing with the disease itself. The loss of traditional support structures such as church communities for those whose involvement has stopped, the stress of enduring continuous news reports and casual conversation with friends and coworkers about the pandemic, as well as reduced access to counselors and other health professionals, are also significant, the researchers note.

October is National Depression Education and Awareness Month, and health professionals note that the need for such awareness is great. Suicide is one of the leading causes of death worldwide; some 800,000 people take their own lives every year; that’s more than the number of people who are killed in wars and other military engagements.

Health experts note that we all are enduring a major disruption in our lives. It’s important to look for and recognize signs of stress in ourselves and those around us. They can include anger, sadness or frustration, changes in energy, sleep patterns, appetite or activities; difficulty concentrating or making decisions. Many people will start or increase bad health habits such as smoking, drinking or use of drugs.

Children also might have unusual difficulty in school, return to habits they had outgrown, or avoidance of activities they used to enjoy.

Talking about difficulties and stress is recommended, as it can help show loved ones that their feelings and behaviors are understood. Try to limit children’s exposure to news about the pandemic and reassure them that they are safe and loved. Experts say it’s also good to encourage a return to activities they enjoy and other elements of their old normal lives.

Most importantly, talk to school counselors or seek professional help if necessary.

Children — and everyone else — needs to know that they are not alone in dealing with COVID-19 and related stresses. We must, however, recognize that the health risks associated with the pandemic go beyond the virus itself.