The year was not supposed to end like this.
While the end of 2020 was marked by the promise of a widely available COVID-19 vaccine, cases are rising as the holidays approach and the signs of lasting stress are apparent.
Opioid deaths kept soaring this year. The demand for psychiatric services is spurring one hospital to seek expansion and causing challenges for the system. Calls to the Maine Crisis Hotline have been on the rise after seeing a dip around August, according to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.
To see how Mainers are doing, we spoke to three therapists, Jodie Hart, an addiction counselor with Crisis and Counseling Centers in Augusta, Rachel Brown-Chidsey, a University of Southern Maine special education professor and a school psychologist, and Thomas Cooper, a therapist in Portland and the president of the Maine Psychological Association, about how their clients are feeling and how to cope with the pandemic entering its third year.
They confirmed what we all know: Mainers feel stressed and there could be long-term effects from the pandemic. But there are also signs of hope. Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
How are people doing right now?
Cooper: There are a lot of people who are fatigued about talking about COVID; I like to joke that some people have fatigue talking about “COVID fatigue.” Some of that is playing out in terms of being lax with safety measures, frustration with masks from people who otherwise would be wearing them in Hannaford and things like that, and other people continue to be frustrated and disappointed with the whole thing.
Brown-Chidsey: Children are doing moderately well and looking to the adults in their lives to understand and cope with pandemic life. For younger children, masking and social distancing is normal because it’s all they know. For pre-teens and adolescents, this is a new normal. Those children who have adults in their lives who model healthy coping with the pandemic are more likely to demonstrate resilience and better long-term outcomes.
Hart: We’ve seen an increase in mental health symptoms, and then the go-to for some to manage those symptoms is substance use. We already had the opioid epidemic, and with the [COVID-19] pandemic it has triggered an increase in feelings of isolation, of feelings of not having support and resources. On a silver lining, over a year later, we have seen an increase in online meetings and online support, which for some has been a saving grace, because they might not have attended those in the past otherwise.
How have people’s feelings about the pandemic changed from a year ago?
Cooper: I think in the early days, maybe a year and a half ago, if you look at when this first started, there was some semblance of coming together. Over the past year, it’s become a little bit more divisive and there’s a lot of blaming, a lot of distrust with people with different viewpoints — a lot of it along political lines or vaccination status.
Brown-Chidsey: Last year, this was unprecedented, and the grownups were still trying to navigate what to do and how to explain this all to kids. Whereas this year, mask wearing, testing vaccinations, six feet apart, has become a much more normal experience. I think that helps kids to have some stability around the response to this. That, hopefully, is going to keep them on an even keel, until hopefully we’ll come out of this someday.
Hart: I would have thought people would have learned to live with it, but really, people are just kind of done with it. There’s a sense of hopelessness and powerlessness that people are trying to deal with.
How are you advising people to cope?
Cooper: I’m a huge advocate of self care. I nag people about that all day every day. What I really stress is having a diversified approach to self care. A huge part of that for me is having a mindfulness practice. A part of that is to connect with exercise, connect with other hobbies and other interests as well.
Brown-Chidsey: A lot of slowing down, breathing and mindful exercises. We know those can be very effective and that they can work well even with kids starting in first and second grade, and to help instill in them a sense of control over their own bodies and their own mind when things externally might begin or seem scary and not as in control.
Hart: Self care, self care, self care. Whether it’s knitting, watching your favorite TV show, accessing a support group online – whatever they can do to increase self care is so huge. With the holidays and the pandemic, there is this tendency to not be mindful of ourselves and focus on other people and other things that are outside our control.
What worries you the most about the pandemic’s long-term effects on people’s mental health?
Cooper: My own sense of the clients I’m working with is that the demands continue to be very acute right now, and I think the mental health anxieties and response to stressors are going to continue after we open back up or whatever the next chapter looks like.
I also think there’s an argument for human resiliency, and think that we will learn to live with this and develop greater precautions about safety with time. I think a lot of this is just really tough right now – and there’s no indication that it’s going to change.
Brown-Chidsey: I worry that this cohort of children will take the current uncertainties created by COVID into their future and it will influence their trust in the media and those organizations designed to provide support. Children predisposed to anxiety and depression may display worsening symptoms due to the pervasive uncertainty.
Hart: Probably the continuing isolation and the continued lack of support people are feeling, and people not getting well and succumbing to their mental health issues, their substance use.