A Year Of Grief And Loss Breeds Pandemic Fatigue
Since the pandemic arrived in Colorado nearly a year ago, a related mental health crisis has been forming in its shadow. Pandemic fatigue is the latest manifestation of this crisis. It’s a feeling of malaise resulting from months of isolation from family and friends, stress and pandemic endurance. The phenomenon has been growing, even among those who have not experienced the harshest effects of the coronavirus.
The growth of pandemic fatigue in Colorado is tangible and quantifiable. The state Office of Behavioral Health reported a significant increase in calls to the state’s crisis services hotline since the pandemic began, a number that has been increasing steadily since last March, reaching record highs in recent months.
Paul Barnett, associate director of adult treatment and recovery at OBH, says pandemic fatigue is a type of burnout the National Institute for Health defines as a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.
According to Barnett, some of the most common signs of pandemic-related burnout are feeling overwhelmed and emotionally drained, lacking energy, feeling empty and unmotivated, feeling an increase in irritability, increased conflicts in relationships, and feeling stuck, exhausted or hopeless.
“I think the social isolation is really hard on people,” he said. “It leads to depression, poor sleep, quality, impaired function, even heart health problems and reduced immune function.”
Barnett said that his office has seen other evidence of Coloradan’s increasing mental health troubles as well. For instance, cases of court-ordered substance use treatment increased by 70% last year. And mental health providers around the state have had difficulty retaining staff to keep up with demand for services.
“I've been a clinician for 25 years. I've never seen anything like this in my life,” Barnett said. “I would say the effect on people's mental health, behavioral health to include substance use is by far the worst. The time that I've ever experienced.”
An endurance test
A year of grief and loss. That’s how University of Denver psychology professor Apryl Alexander described the past 11 months.
“Last year was really difficult for a lot of us,” she said. “There was COVID-19 and the racial reckoning. There were a lot of stressors that were occurring in our environment.”
All of those stressors compound to create that feeling of pandemic fatigue.
“Some people did lose their jobs. Some people did lose loved ones, but also loss of experiences, thinking about birthdays, graduations, celebrations with your friends and loved ones, all of those things we missed out on last year,” Alexander said.
Both Alexander and Barnett cited the dangers of illusory relief — a phenomenon well-known among behavioral health experts.
“I think that hope is what's getting us antsy,” Alexander explained. “We've been tired for so long of all these experiences being taken away from us. Coming into 2021, we now have a vaccine which is giving us a little bit of hope that maybe we're almost towards the end.”
At the same time, Barnett pointed out that the vaccine roll-out has not led to an immediate change in circumstances for most people.
“When people have endured something for a long time, if they have just a little bit of relief or hope, but it doesn't move the needle on the problem dramatically. They tend to get worse before they get better,” he said.
Even in our isolation, there is a collective quality to pandemic fatigue, according to Reverend Amanda Henderson, director for the Institute for Religion, Politics and Culture at the Iliff School of Theology.
“I'm a believer that we are all connected and that what impacts one impacts all of us,” she said. “We're experiencing a collective stress. (Pandemic fatigue symptoms) are the material impacts of our collective consciousness.”
Barnett, Alexander and Henderson all had advice for people working through the antsy-ness and exhaustion of pandemic fatigue.
Henderson urges mindfulness. “Just noticing it. ‘I feel malaise. I feel discontent. I know that there are people suffering all around me in ways that are more intense. That doesn't change that I'm still feeling this malaise,'” she said. “And it doesn't mean you get stuck in it or but it doesn't mean you feel guilty about it. You just notice it.”
Connection is key. While the communal energy Henderson described can be a vehicle for pain, it can also bring solace. “That collective consciousness of the pain and suffering also brings a collective deeper vulnerability and connection to our own suffering, which it moves you to a different level of relationship," she said.
Alexander agrees. “I think we didn't value as much the importance of connection until this moment,” she said. “We are connected beings and we need that supports in order to live healthy, happy, productive, thriving lives. Even if you are an introvert, you still need people.”
Alexander also urges people to tap into their self-knowledge about what has helped buoy spirits in the past. “Hone in and think about the coping skills that have traditionally worked,” she counseled. “Is it going for walks? Is it listening to music?”
Meanwhile, Barnett recommends maintaining a strong routine. “Wake up at a normal time, get dressed, stick to a schedule,” he said. “Also stay with your stay on your physical health. Mental and physical health are really interconnected.” At the same time, he says it’s a good idea to find ways to pepper in special events and activities to help stave off boredom.
Barnett also counsels that it’s time to reach out for help when pandemic fatigue starts interfering with your ability to function. “Having serious trouble sleeping is a problem,” he said. “Thoughts of suicide are a very serious problem. But even eating, sleeping, not being able to focus — those may be sort of minor, but it can start to add up over time.”
Finally, Reverend Henderson calls on people to believe in their own resilience. “That means being OK even when the world is not OK,” she said. Resilience “is not a hope that's dependent on a certain outcome. It's a hope regardless.”
No matter what you’re going through, help is available. Call Colorado Crisis Services at 844-493-TALK (8255) or text TALK to 38255. Learn more at ColoradoCrisisServices.org.