As COVID eases, war presents new mental health challenges


(NewsNation) — COVID-19 restrictions are easing but lasting impacts from the pandemic and a humanitarian crisis in Ukraine are taking a new emotional toll.

COVID-19 caused people to hyper-fixate on their own lives and behaviors, but as war rages in Ukraine, many Americans are shifting their focus beyond their immediate circles. Paul Pendler, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine, said giving back and sticking with a routine are key to managing the stress of the ongoing pandemic and a war overseas.

“The biggest message is: People need to get outside of the boundaries of just the United States. This is a worldwide event,” Pendler said.

The nonprofit group Mental Health America released a dashboard in February that geographically maps the results of 2.6 million mental health screenings conducted in 2020 and 2021. The map provided a view of at-risk rates of suicidal ideation, severe depression, PTSD, trauma and psychosis for every state and county in the U.S., and adults weren’t the only ones feeling weighed down.

Notably, more than half of people who were screened at risk for those conditions were between the ages of 11 and 24. The pandemic compounded the stress that school-aged children feel, according to a related Mental Health America report. Those stresses include reduced face-to-face contact, loss of family or caregivers and at-home conflicts. The latter is especially true for LGBTQ children and youth in poverty.

The added emotional weight and mental stress of Russia’s war in Ukraine could take a separate emotional toll on adults and children alike, even those with no direct connection to the ongoing conflict, Pendler said.

“I think the reason why people are so heartbroken seeing all the images of Ukraine is that it is a worldwide event,” he said. “In my little world, am I directly affected seeing those images? No, but obviously, I’m affected by it. There’s something that weaves all of us together as human beings.”

Beyond its emotional impact, the war has some Americans concerned about the threat of a nuclear attack, according to a NewsNation/Decision Desk HQ poll. It’s a fear that might feel familiar for those alive during the Cold War era, but is unchartered territory for others. When in comes to relieving those anxieties, Pendler says people should focus on what they can control and be mindful about their news consumption.

“People have to just start understanding when they’re full. And if they feel full, that’s usually a sign that they’ve maxed out what kind of information they have,” Pendler said. “If they keep sort of trying to get one more piece, then I think they’re beginning to do it out of more anxiety. They really are satiated, but they’re still trying to digest more. And that’s not a good sign.”

Keeping physically active and returning to some of the hobbies and practices that were temporarily off-limits can also restore a sense of balance, Pendler said.

“Headaches, body complaints, trouble sleeping, too much sleeping — all of those are physical attributes that you need to do something about,” Pendler said. “So physically moving just teaches you to be more aware if you in fact are struggling with something, to at least pay attention to what’s going on in your body.”

There’s also no shame in seeking the help of a professional if anxiety begins to feel unmanageable. Asking friends and family for recommendations or using an employee assistance program are good places to start, Pendler said.

“I don’t think you should wait until it’s debilitating,” Pendler said. “I think the truth is, if you are continuing to wake up feeling anxious about it, and it is starting to impact how you get things going through the day and things like that, if you find yourself distracted, that’s grounds that you need to have some space where you can talk to somebody professionally.”

Above all, Pendler said, it’s important to have hope.

“Hope is also a very valuable component … find some moments of some activity that sort of makes you realize there’s hope, even on small scale, particularly now more and more with the way things are looking,” Pendler said.

Anyone seeking mental health services can call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Helpline at 800-662-HELP or contact the via text at 435748 (HELP4U).

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached 24 hours a day at 800-273-8255.

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