by C. Aileen Blaine
“It was very stressful at the beginning,” Jamie tells me. “Not only now was I a mom, a wife taking care of the house, a college student — I was also a teacher on top of it all.”
Youngstown State University student Jamie Fisher and I are talking about the effects the COVID-19 pandemic has had on our lives. We are both sitting at a dining room table, smiling and laughing. We’re both dressed in sweatshirts, with our hair pulled back because we can’t be bothered to style it. Our faces are bare and tired. It’s the quarantine uniform, we joke.
But we are not sitting at the same dining room table. Instead, we sit, eyes trained to our screens, in our own homes, in true pandemic style. In fact, many miles separate us, but because of the times we’re living in, the closeness I feel to Jamie in these moments supersedes the physical distance.
Everyone’s “stay at home” experience has been different, so I want to know more about Jamie’s experience. I ask her how changes brought on by the pandemic lockdowns have affected her life.
“I was feeling very overwhelmed,” she says. “‘Stay at home’ meant for me, literally, stay at home. I don’t let people in my house, I don’t go to people’s houses. I don’t go out,” Jamie says. No trips to the grocery store, no ventures to the gas station, no nights out at a favorite restaurant, per doctor’s orders.
I ask her how she weathers the isolation.
“Alcohol,” she says with a laugh, but it isn’t completely carefree. “Everybody knows. My husband, my son … If I had a day where I had classes, and then my son was just off-the-wall crazy and I was teaching him, my ass was pulling out the Jameson bottle at the end of the night and they knew it.”
Jamie’s honesty is refreshing and even humorous, and it’s a great showcase of the positivity she radiates. She explains that the bottle of Jameson isn’t something she relies on, but a quick shot or two has served as a temporary crutch to get through some of the more difficult days, when reading and physical activity just aren’t enough.
But for many others, such a confession is not so easy to make — even to themselves. Many Ohioans have found their mental health to be just one more casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to a pandemic report by the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, an Express Scripts report stated that within a month of the pandemic’s onset in the United States, prescriptions rose for anti-anxiety medications by 34.1%, antidepressants by 18.6% and anti-insomnia drugs by 14.8%. According to a Nielsen report, alcohol sales “soared” and online purchases rose 55% within the first two weeks of Ohio’s coronavirus lockdown.
Those who are isolated and stressed are more likely to use self-medication to alleviate their negative feelings and emotions. For some individuals, increased substance use can lead to a substance use disorder. Because isolation — stay at home — and stress are such hallmarks of the coronavirus experience, it’s to be expected that many Ohioans’ mental and emotional states are being pushed to their limits. If left unchecked, the crisis is expected to grow as more individuals lose their jobs, their loved ones and their livelihoods to the virus.
“Some students are concerned about health and COVID,” Dr. Ann Jaronski, licensed psychologist and director of Student Counseling Services at YSU, says. “Many are anxious about managing school and other commitments remotely. Some are struggling with family and other relationships concerns, heightened by being ‘home.’ Many are stressed and overwhelmed because things are not back to how they were in February 2020. Social, political and racial concerns are affecting some students [as well].”
“Basically,” Jaronski said, “we are seeing the same concerns we always have, some are just exacerbated because of the pandemic and lack of connection with others.”
These compounded issues cause many individuals of all backgrounds and education levels to seek out ways to cope with the current circumstances. For some, this means engaging in activities like exercising, cooking or reading. For others, it’s using too much technology, eating and sleeping poorly or consuming drugs or alcohol.
The pandemic has also changed how mental health care providers are able to help those needing services. What were once in-person sessions now have to be conducted remotely, which can be inaccessible to some for a variety of reasons.
Due to licensing laws and liability insurance, counseling services provided by Ohio offices are only available to those who reside in the state. In the case of YSU, Student Counseling Services has been able to assist students in locating mental health services where they are located.
“It’s been difficult to switch practice strategies from all in-person to all-remote,” Jaronski says. “We’ve been seeing fewer students, but have been able to provide more services to those students.”
Nevertheless, the pandemic hasn’t been complete doom and gloom for mental wellness.
“There’s more talk about the mental health impacts related to COVID,” Jamie L. Miller, licensed clinical counselor and clinical director at Alta Behavioral Healthcare of the Mahoning Valley, says. “There’s much more opportunity for telehealth therapy services, where in the past, insurance companies weren’t so interested or willing to pay for those services.”
Other developments in mental health awareness have had the opportunity to take off due to the pandemic. Alta Behavioral offers a program called Youth Mental Health First-Aid Training, which focuses on increasing awareness of mental health issues that might be present in young adults. It focuses on helping teachers, coaches and other adults recognize the signs and symptoms of mental distress in those who might be struggling.
“If you kind of liken it to first-aid training, or CPR training — where you’re learning how to respond to the signs and symptoms of a stroke,” Miller says, “it helps reduce the stigma.”
Since those early days in March 2020, Jamie has had an emotional journey, but she’s on the right path.
Alcohol might have been a temporary crutch, but she has other ways to get through these difficult times. She goes for bike rides and walks with her son, she reads voraciously and she makes humorous videos on TikTok. She video calls with friends and family, too.
And when things get to be too overwhelming, she sets a timer and allows herself to cry.
“When that timer goes off, I wipe the tears away. I take another deep breath and I tell myself, ‘All right, Jamie, knock it off. It’s time. We’re done — we cried it out. No more. Let’s get it together,’” she says.
Most importantly, she’s altered how she views being stuck at home.
“Thinking about things in a positive way,” Jamie says, in her cheerful, smiling way, “truly that’s helped my mentality.”
She becomes serious and caring, adopting her “mom-mode.” Despite technological limitations, her concern for others is palpable.
“There’s no reason to be ashamed, there’s no reason to be embarrassed,” Jamie says, looking at me through the screen. “It’s okay to ask for help. Everyone needs help in this world. You know that phrase, ‘It takes a village’? It takes a village.”