For many on Long Island, it may seem as if the coronavirus crisis is finally nearing an end. But according to mental health experts and social service workers, the pandemic’s impact on mental health will continue to be felt for some time.
According to research from the Kaiser Family Foundation, four in 10 Americans began suffering from anxiety or depression during the pandemic, up from one in 10 in 2019. Those conditions were manifested in a variety of ways. Over 30 percent of American adults reported struggling to sleep and eat, while another 12 percent reported increases in substance use, particularly alcohol and marijuana.
Local social service workers such as Austin Hansen, from the Youth and Family Counseling Agency in Oyster Bay, say they have seen those trends continue. Hansen, who works with people from ages 10 to 70, said that many of his clients began using drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism during the pandemic.
“I’ve definitely seen an increase in people using substances at this time to cope with the pandemic and to cope with that isolation and not having those social connections,” Hansen said. “I’ve seen that in many of my clients, and their significant others, with alcohol and marijuana intake going up, absolutely.”
Children and young adults were significantly more likely than adults to show symptoms of depression or anxiety. According to Kaiser Foundation research, 56.2 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds suffered from those conditions at the height of the pandemic, while younger children also suffered in high numbers.
Ellen Ritz, a member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s New York Board, explained that the psychological stress was compounded by the impact of anxious family members living together. Ritz, a former president of NAMI’s Nassau/Queens division, frequently works with the North Shore Coalition Against Substance Abuse, which often holds its meetings in Sea Cliff. She also runs NAMI’s Family Support Group, which offers families struggling with mental health issues the chance to share and deal with their experiences together.
“What I have seen, in general,” Ritz said, “is that when a parent is beside themselves or feeling a tremendous amount of anxiety, or maybe two of them are fighting, the children don’t feel safe, and then they can become anxious or depressed. So the most important thing for parents is to make sure they’re not yelling or fighting in front of their children, as that can seriously affect [children’s] nervous system.”
Women were another vulnerable group, shown to be 9 percent more likely than men to suffer anxiety during the pandemic, according to Kaiser. They were also more likely to suffer domestic abuse from partners, with a 10 percent increase in domestic violence arrests in 2020 reported by the New York City Police Department.
Barbara Rakusin, executive director of the Youth and Family Counseling Agency, said she had helped four individuals who began experiencing domestic abuse, both physical and emotional, during the pandemic.
“Not surprisingly, but I think disturbingly, I took several phone calls for domestic violence during that time,” Rakusin recalled. “One of the calls I took while I was working from home required I get on another phone and request police intervention.”
Statistics indicate that although things have improved, communities have a long way to go to shake off the effects of Covid. New York state currently ranks third in the country in the total number of people suffering from mental illness, and second in the number of teens suffering from depression, according to data from Mental Health America.
For Rakusin, these statistics are not surprising. She said she believes that the impact of the pandemic will be long-lasting, and must continue to be addressed. “I think as far as the impact, we’re not done,” she said. “I think we’re going be seeing the psychiatric and psychological impact for a long time. People have been traumatized, and trauma stays a long time and becomes inter-generational if it’s not handled.”