Silent Stress: Living with mental illness amidst pandemic

Emma+Ruderman+mentally+prepares+herself+for+Zoom.

Courtesy Emma Ruderman

Emma Ruderman mentally prepares herself for Zoom.

Mike Combs, Staff Writer

Emma Ruderman sits motionless in front of her computer. Her eyes dart from the screen to the clock like a game of pingpong as she counts down the last few minutes to class. She steadies her hand, grabs the mouse and hovers the cursor over the Zoom icon. Before she clicks , she feels the room’s temperature increase, outside noises become more pervasive, and she can’t focus over the glare of the lamp.

Taking a deep breath, she holds it in until the symptoms go away. She clicks on the mouse and braces herself for another hour-and-a-half roller coaster.

Ruderman, a 19-year-old Santa Rosa Junior College art major, suffers from depression and anxiety. She has always struggled to stay motivated while juggling a full schedule of work, school and socializing, and she faces a new challenge trying to keep her symptoms in check during a pandemic.

“Small bits of socialization through Zoom are overwhelming at times. It’s hard for me to wake up earlier than I need to or get ready for these meetings,” she said.

Ruderman is one of 43 million Americans suffering from mental health issues,
many of whom are facing similar challenges coping with their symptoms or finding the appropriate help during the COVID-19 social restraints.

Ruderman is one of 43 million Americans suffering from mental health issues, many of whom are facing similar challenges coping with their symptoms or finding the appropriate help during the COVID-19 social restraints.

People with depression feel stressed over the same issues as everybody else: jobs, relationships, success. With depression these issues can become pervasive, which can result in overwhelming anxiety. Therapy usually involves a method of diverting anxious thoughts during bouts of stress until they pass. But what if the stressor is constant, like with the unknown future of the coronavirus pandemic?

“I would [typically] attempt to calm myself by knowing that I am overreacting, which is not the case with COVID-19,” she said.

People suffering from mental health started reaching their stress limits soon after COVID-19 struck America’s shores. According to Van Hedwell, a licensed marriage and and family therapist with San Francisco’s Suicide Prevention hotline, high risk calls to San Francisco’s suicide hotline increased by almost 30% in the first half of April. A spokesperson of the federal agency, ‘The Disaster Distress Helpline’, said that calls increased by 338%.

Sonoma County officials created the COVID-19 Mental Health Warm Line — which is different from a hotline because it doesn’t operate 24 hours a day — on April 23 to assist residents with issues specifically relating to COVID-19. The public health spokesperson, Rohish Lal, said the warmline received 109 calls in the first week.

To make sure people suffering from mental health issues are able to receive treatment, medical care facilities across Sonoma County, such as The Petaluma Health Center, are still offering mental health services via phone or video appointments.

SRJC has also switched Student Psychological Services to remote service, and phone or video appointments are available. Dr. Bert Epstein, director of SRJC Student Psychological Services said students are seeking help with issues related to stressful living conditions: “Zoom fatigue,” substance abuse, insomnia and low mood and motivation.

SRJC’s Mental Health Resources website also offers links that provide information on coping with mental health issues, including anxiety and depression. The site has a 60-minute “Staying Safe During Coronavirus” webinar hosted by Epstein and Dr. Cynthia Dickinson, the nurse practitioner at SRJC’s Petaluma campus. Together they answer student questions about maintaining mental and physical health during the pandemic.

While these are helpful, they are still limited when compared to meeting in-person.

“For me a big part of therapy is taking time to go to the office and shift into the mindset of therapy. Without the meeting in person, it is less of a mindset shift for me,” Ruderman said.

Despite this setback, she plans to have more Zoom therapy sessions. She says they are still helpful and considers her therapist a big part of her support system.

One of the ways stress exacerbates mental health issues is that it elicits a “fight or flight” mentality. The flight or fight mentality usually occurs when a person is in danger and they need to confront or get away from that danger. It can be triggered by something quick and immediate, like getting startled by a loud noise, or something longer lasting, like being involved in a car accident. In any case, for most people the stress disappears along with the danger, but for someone prone to anxiety, stress lingers for a longer time.

In the webinar, Epstein mentions that with people prone to anxiety, the stress during a crisis leads to catastrophic thinking, where the worst case scenario is bound to happen.

“This fear was persistent,” said Azalea Mazur, 25, an SRJC student working on her journalism certificate who also suffers from depression and anxiety. “I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that I was going to die and possibly everyone I know and love I might have to watch die.”

Mazur’s fear was magnified with each news segment that provided new information on COVID-19. “I would stay up thinking about how sad and horrible everything was,” she said.

Esptein also mentioned in the webinar that it is easy to get overloaded with all the pandemic news, which leads to low mood or anxiety. He recommends people to restrict their news intake to once a day if possible.

Mazur has followed this advice, especially before bed. She is also controlling her mood by adhering to a daily routine and staying busy with activities and hobbies.

“Art can put people in a zen state, where they are focused and spending less time in their thoughts worried about troubles,” she said.

Mazur also works outside on a remote farm, and says the sunny weather has improved her mood.

Ruderman agrees that spending time outside is therapeutic. She breaks up long periods online with periodic sunbathing.

Students also experienced an increase in depressive symptoms from the sudden lack of responsibility that came with the shelter-in-place orders nearly two months ago.

Willow Ornellas, 18, a first-year SRJC student, fell into a downward spiral after her sleep started becoming irregular.

“Both me and my boyfriend would sleep until 11 a.m. because we didn’t have anything to do, and then we would stay up super late because we couldn’t sleep and then we would sleep in again the next day,” Ornellas said of the vicious cycle.

Having more time can lead to a decrease in students’ motivation, Epstein said in his webinar. Students with extra time usually procrastinate, and putting off obligations over time leads to decreased motivation.

Ornellas was able to snap out of it with the help of her newly adopted 7-month-old Siberian Husky. Ornellas felt it was easier to keep a healthy routine with her puppy since he needed to be fed, exercised and walked regularly.

However, a new puppy is a luxury many resident’s can’t undertake. While there are a plethora of online resources available they can be bogged down by trial and error. Even so Ruderman considers her therapist an essential part of her support system to maintain a stable mentality during the pandemic.

While self-help through online resources can be helpful, it can be a slow process bogged down by trial and error. Online resources may be cumbersome, but Ruderman considers them essential to maintain a stable mentality during this time of unknown danger.

“I have been seeing my current therapist for six years and we are very close,” Ruderman said. “I’m so thankful that I have this bond with her and that I am still able to meet with her online.”