Mental health issues like anxiety and depression are difficult to deal with in "normal" times. Not surprisingly, during a global pandemic that forces people to isolate from friends and loved ones, those issues can be greatly exacerbated.
The Washington state Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have issued documents that compare the coronavirus to a natural disaster in terms of how people's mental health is affected and evolves over time. And mental health professional Sabrina Votava says that, anecdotally speaking, she's seeing that play out.
Votava, founder of Spokane suicide-prevention organization FailSafe for Life, says that at the beginning of the pandemic, people doubled down at their efforts to stay connected with friends and family, were adaptive to what they had to do to make those connections, "and thankfully we have the technology to make that happen." Now, five months later, we're at a different stage.
"In that curve that's laid out for natural disasters, we're in what they would call the 'disillusionment period,'" Votava says. "We've been in it for a while. There's really no end in sight. We're not sure when we'll be able to socialize like we were before. For many people, this is incredibly isolating. I think our biggest concern about the impacts on mental health is that this will be something that creates sustained isolation, which can lead to depression or other devastating effects."
To some degree, the Inland Northwest is lucky in that our natural environs gave people plenty of opportunities to get outside over the summer, Votava says. But as the pandemic stretches into fall and winter and people hunker down inside, she worries that folks experiencing anxiety and depression — as diagnosed patients or as people dealing with those things for the first time — will find those feelings ramping up.
"Some of the anxiety that was happening at the beginning [of the pandemic] is still present, and is kind of vacillating between maybe more-anxious states, and then people starting to feel a little shutdown and withdrawn. That makes sense because it can only tolerate being anxious for so long and then our body will kind of do that."
Kym and Mark Hilinski have thrown themselves into mental-health advocacy since their son, WSU quarterback Tyler Hilinski, died by suicide in 2018. Their family's organization, Hilinkski's Hope Foundation, works connecting student-athletes and school athletic departments with mental health resources and expertise and focuses on destigmatizing mental illness.
Typically, the couple takes their advocacy on the road, going straight to schools. But the pandemic has forced them to put off in-person visits for the time being, and they're turning to Zoom for much of their work. They also started a new podcast called UNIT3D, hosted by a sports psychologist who interviews various mental health experts and athletes about their own struggles.
Hearing from fellow athletes open about dealing with mental health issues is a big step in fighting the stigma they feel keep many athletes like Tyler from talking to someone about getting help.
"If someone is truly struggling and doesn't know how or who to reach out to, it's tough, especially for student-athletes who are supposed to be 'strong,'" Kym Hilinski says. "They're human beings. Just like all of us, they have their physical health, and they have their mental health, too."
A student-athlete might not want to speak up if they're feeling depression or anxiety for fear that they'll lose their role on the team, or be seen differently by their coaches and teammates, she says, and "there's so many different emotions, and maybe a little bit of embarrassment."
"But if you or I got sick and we were struck with cancer, I wouldn't be embarrassed to go to an oncologist, and it's the same thing. If you have a mental health issue, you should not be embarrassed to go talk to a sports psychologist, a counselor or a psychiatrist. It's all the same. We just hope it's on par with the way we take care of our physical health."
Votava at FailSafe says that experiencing anxiety during this unusual time is to be expected, and wants people to have "a lot of grace and patience" with themselves. At the same time, if someone is feeling unusually angry and irritable, feeling worried and unsure what to do about it, or find themselves shutting down to the world, those could all be signs help is needed. Even when we're not in the middle of a pandemic, if you or someone you know is not sleeping regularly, isn't eating nutritiously and isn't taking care of themselves physically, those could likewise be signs of depression.
One of the groups Hilinski's Hope works with, Step Up!, is a peer-to-peer intervention program that teaches students how to help friends in need and respond appropriately to signs of mental illness. They also work with Behind Happy Faces, a group that educates students on how to recognize their own feelings and check in on their own mental health, because sometimes everything on the outside can look just fine. That was certainly the case with Tyler, according to his father Mark.
"We were expecting there would be that one teammate or girlfriend or friend who would say, 'Oh, yeah, I was worried about him,'" Mark Hilinski says. "We didn't get any of that ... When you talk to the experts, and we've talked to a lot of them, [they say] when the brain starts to make bad decisions, the person making them isn't fully aware of what's going on. In most cases of young people ... it's really not their decision. They haven't contemplated, 'Well, I don't want to be in this life anymore' and so forth. What it is is, there's a pain associated with depression or anxiety that's so great, they just want to escape it.
"Not everybody believes that mental illness is real. They think it's a continuum of our experience. But the sickness, the disease of depression and anxiety, is so palpable in those who have it, it's sort of impossible for us to understand." ♦
September is National Suicide Prevention Month. To learn more about FailSafe for Life, make a donation or take part in their upcoming "Fall Into Hope" online auction starting Sept. 10, visit failsafeforlife.org. To learn more about the Hilinski's Hope Foundation, make a donation or listen to the new UNIT3D podcast about student-athletes and mental health, visit hilinskishope.org.
CONNECTING TO HELP
24-Hour Regional Crisis Line (Frontier Behavioral Health)
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
suicidepreventionlifeline.org (online chatting available)
hopeline.com (online chatting available)
The Trevor Project (LGBTQ focus)
thetrevorproject.org (online chatting and texting available, limited hours)
Crisis Text Line
Speak with a teen phone worker between 6-10 pm