COVID-19 is more than just an economic and physical health hazard. It’s also a mental health crisis, causing heightened levels of depression and anxiety among people.

“Isolation, major life stressors like financial strain, loss of employment, lack of adequate childcare, and limited access to resources can exacerbate mental health issues,” said Kristen Keleher, licensed clinical professional counselor and manager of community engagement at Thrive Counseling Center, 120 S. Marion St.

To address the Oak Park and River Forest communities’ mental health needs during this time, Thrive has a free check-in support phone line, accessible by dialing 708-383-7500, ext. 8. Since opening the line, Thrive therapists have actively been receiving calls from people in need of support.

“I would say the overall theme of the calls is just difficulty coping with the novel challenges that they’re facing,” Keleher said.

Staying inside and working from home has altered many people’s daily routines.

“I have had a lot of conversations with clients about behavior activation during shelter in place,” said Molly Feldheim, a Thrive therapist.

“For instance, staying in bed too late and then feeling shame and guilt, people neglecting hygiene or not having anything productive to work on, or not having the energy, motivation or mental resilience to get those tasks done, which becomes a spiral.”

People have also lost access to typical outlets for stress management and self-care, such as exercising at the gym.

Combined with the shutdown of childcare facilities and the pressures of having to homeschool, stressful circumstances could send people straight toward a meltdown. Instances of child abuse have also risen as children spend more time at home, according to Keleher.

While not every person has the exact same situation, contracting the virus — a possibility faced by all people — is also extremely worrisome.

“Anxiety in particular tends to have a lot of physical symptoms that correspond with it, like increased heart rate, which causes sometimes shallow breathing or tightness in the chest,” Keleher said.

Shortness of breath and difficulty breathing are also early symptoms of COVID-19. Some people are having trouble distinguishing anxiety-related breathing problems with those of the virus, leading to even higher levels of anxiety.

One of Feldheim’s clients already struggled with hypochondriac-tendencies before COVID-19.

“She, for the past few years, has been excessively worried about health conditions and has gone to her doctors almost once a month because she feels something is wrong,” Feldheim said. “She has described the pandemic as ‘her worst fears realized.'”

Social isolation and the inability to be in close proximity of friends and loved ones has plummeted some individuals into depression as well.                         

Perhaps out of boredom or to take the edge off, people are imbibing more alcohol, a central nervous system depressant.

“Our therapists have also learned, from participation in various community meetings and through communication with clients, that substance abuse has increased,” Keleher said.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot imposed a 9 p.m. liquor sales curfew because so many people were going to liquor stores and lining up outside, risking further spread of COVID-19.

The economic turmoil caused by COVID-19 has raised the unemployment rate and exacerbated financial concerns.

Lisa DeVivo, Oak Park Township Community Mental Health Board executive director, expects an increase in the number of people who need mental health services but don’t have health insurance.

“We’re anticipating that the need is going to go up because of people being laid off,” said DeVivo. “We are paying very close attention to that.”

In part, the Community Mental Health Board provides funding to some of the mental health agencies it partners with to help cover the cost of treating uninsured patients living in Oak Park.

The board has created a guide of available resources, updated weekly and shared with Oak Park and River Forest taxing bodies.      

While few agencies are seeing patients in-person, Riveredge Hospital, a mental health treatment center in Forest Park, is continuing to admit patients suffering from extreme cases of depression and anxiety, according to DeVivo.

During this crisis, people should also consider the mental health of others, as well as their own.

“Remember to reach out to people who might be isolated or you might be concerned about,” Keleher said. “It’s perhaps even more important than ever to make sure they know there is someone thinking about them and caring about them.”

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