Special Report

Shutdown: The Coronavirus

Mental health issues can soar in social isolation caused by pandemic

Photo by @JulieK via Twenty20

Ashley Armstrong’s routine runs like clockwork. She wakes up in her Queens home, spends the morning with her cat, and prepares for the day. She rides the MTA to Columbus Circle to begin her tasks at work. Every week she sees her therapist in Long Island to combat her anxiety. 

But since the spread of coronavirus across the nation, people are in lockdown inside their homes to slow down the spread of COVID-19. An increased use of platforms like Zoom has allowed therapy to be accessible during the pandemic. In New York state, about 6,000 health professionals have volunteered at a hotline initiated by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to support residents with their mental health. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services waived penalties for violations of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, meaning healthcare providers can provide more telehealth services through remote communication without fear of violating privacy. 

But even with online resources, mental health issues are proven to be exacerbated by social isolation. The entire country has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic, and nearly half of Americans said their well being has been negatively impacted by the threat of coronavirus

When lockdown started in New York City, Armstrong felt her anxiety increasing. She said that it’s helpful to use remote communication, but that staying inside is still hurting her mental health. 

“I think of it as being the fact that I’m quarantined is like when you go to sleep at night and it’s quiet and the thoughts all race to your head,” she said. “That’s kind of how it is all day because you have nothing else to do and nowhere else to go. Nothing to do with that time.” 

She said that her anxiety is worse because she can’t go outside and see her friends. 

“With anxiety, when you’re quarantined things that you would normally do are a bit harder,” she said. “I’m going stir-crazy because even though I can walk on the beach I miss seeing my friends. I haven’t seen my friends in a while and we can skype and zoom, but I don’t think it’s the same.”

Since  March 22,  the beginning of New York on PAUSE, people have isolated themselves inside their homes.. According to a recent survey, 71 percent of Americans said they are worried that social isolation will harm people’s mental health. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), anxiety worsens when there are factors of instability, lost income, or a loved one getting sick. Loneliness is also a trigger for anxious feelings. 

“I want to go outside and see my friends and not be in my house all the time, Armstrong said.“I am just trying to overcome everything, and not lose my mind. But it’s not the easiest when you’re stressed out.” 

Lisa Damour, a psychologist and practicing therapist, said that mental health issues can intensify during a global crisis. 

“People are feeling very isolated,” Damour said. “I think the problem is mostly self isolation. People want to connect with one another, and sometimes when people are left alone, their minds and their thoughts can get the best of them.”

She said mental health has worsened because people feel helpless and that they can’t do anything to change the situation. She said that distractions are helpful for people struggling with depression and anxiety. 

“Distractions like the show Tiger King can be good, cause it’s so distracting from the entire COVID-19 quarantine,” she said. “People should be using positive coping mechanisms, such as reaching out to other people, taking care of themselves, and finding happy distractions.” 

She said that even though teletherapy isn’t the same as a physical therapist, her clients are happy to have the option. 

“A lot of my clients appreciate Zoom therapy, because they are happy to have this connection rather than nothing,” Damour said.

And some New Yorkers are saying that their mental health has not been affected by isolation but by the sudden changes to their lives. 

“I had a lot of anxiety that first weekend of spring break,” said Isabelle Levy, a New York University graduate student. “During that time, I felt like the rug was just completely pulled out from under me. It was partly because at that point, there was so much that was unknown and there were all these big shifts happening. All of a sudden, we were pulled out of our internships and classes and nobody knew what that was going to look like.” 

She said that even though she has anxiety, she distracts herself by remembering that everyone else is going through the same global crisis.

“Having the outside worlds match the anxiety has allowed me to sort of decompress a little bit’” she said. “We all are separated, physically and we are all social distancing. This is a universal experience right now, we are all in this together. So there is a universal solidarity.” 



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