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Winter and Disaster Prep

Taking Care of Your Mental Health This Winter

This winter poses unique stresses on mental health after the months of isolation, said Caren Howard of Mental Health America.

Winter months always mean spending more time isolated and indoors, but this winter will pose extra challenges on people’s mental health after months of home isolation due to COVID restrictions.

“Being in isolation and living like an island for eight months is not healthy at all,” said Caren Howard, advocacy manager at Mental Health America (MHA). “No one would be able to live a full and adequate life without engaging with other people. As you’re taking precautions and staying masked up and social distancing, also understand that having a circle of trusted people you can meet with in person is also really important right now.”

Mental Health America provides online screening tests for a range of mental health issues, including anxiety and depression. “We collect all of the screening data which we keep anonymous,” Howard said. “In that data, we have real time study of how people are doing during COVID. We found there has been a tremendous increase, as expected, in the rates of isolation and loneliness, especially for substance-use disorders and conditions that rely on community.”

“Over 60 percent of people with a substance use disorder also have a co-occurring mental health disorder,” Howard said. “Sometimes they start out with self-medicating numbing agents, however sometimes after use of the numbing agent they develop a mental health condition. We’re definitely seeing an increase in isolation, loneliness and substance use.”

Isolation has taken a particular toll on teenagers aged 11 to 17, a group which make up a third of MHA’s screening population. Without the social stimulation of school, it’s unknown what impact this year will have on young people in the long term. “Fifty percent of mental illnesses manifest and show symptoms by age 14,” Howard said. “If we’re paying attention to what our young people are going through and not getting them the help they need, those conditions will only become more severe.”

Along with the increase in anxiety and depression, there has also been an increase in the number of people seeking help for mental health conditions. “Residential treatment facilities are overcrowded and not able to meet their demand,” Howard said. “They’re at capacity.”

Mental Health America helps connect people with mental health resources and help lines for those in crisis. “There are resources like the crisis text line and the national suicide prevention hotline, both are resources that are available for crisis,” Howard said. “There’ll certainly be additional stressors and feelings of isolation during this time, so I caution anyone not to wait until it gets to a point where you’re spiraling out of control.”

Winter brings its own effects on people’s mental health, such as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). “As someone who understands seasonal affective disorder and how it hits, exercise has been really important for me to get those feel-good hormones,” Howard said. “Unfortunately, there’s a lack of access to covered treatments by health plans. Light therapy is a known, evidence-based treatment for SAD, but many insurance companies don’t cover it.” There are also prescription medications available for coping with SAD.

Howard cautioned people to take extra care of their mental health this winter. “In 2019 we may have had over 50 percent of people screening positive for depression and anxiety, now we’re seeing over 75 percent of people screening positively,” Howard said. “The first thing I always like to say is to take an inventory of self. Check in with how you’re doing, make a record of it day-to-day.” Simple self-care routines, such as eating healthfully, getting exercise, and taking breaks from screen time, can help prevent anxiety or depression symptoms becoming severe.

Most importantly, connecting with people and talking about your mental health will help getting through these difficult times. “It takes a combination of supports that are community-based, having a family or friend support system that allows you to lean on each other and confide in each other,” Howard said. “There are hundreds of thousands other people going through very similar situations.”

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