Dealing with psychological toll of the coronavirus pandemic


The coronavirus pandemic’s impact on mental health can be seen in the increase in calls to the Bellmore-based Long Island Crisis Center. Roughly 80 percent of those who call specifically mention Covid-19, according to Executive Director Theresa Buhse. Callers have described depressive episodes resulting from self-isolation, anxiety because of possible exposure to the virus and an inability to cope that moved them to join online Alcoholics Anonymous meetings or visit therapists in person.

“We have several different hotlines, and have been answering them around the clock,” Buhse said. “We haven’t missed a beat when it comes to answering the calls.”

Marcella Pizzo, a mental health counselor with a private practice in East Meadow, said she has seen an increase in the number of patients since March, with her caseload at its maximum capacity of 25 to 30 clients a week.

“By the end of April, I had clients who I haven’t seen in two to three years coming back because of the stress,” Pizzo said. “I had a month and a half where it was really intense for me. I don’t like to turn people away.”

She has had to change the way she works with clients, she explained, because of the economic impact the pandemic has had on some of them. She began accepting fees on a sliding scale, based on their income. If a college student didn’t have mental health insurance, she charged a nominal fee, sometimes $20 a session.

“A lot of college students I see probably lost their job, and they’re working in retail and all of those places are closed,” she said. “I have to understand that and recognize that.”

Pizzo said she considers herself a cognitive behavioral therapist, meaning she helps patients challenge harmful behavioral patterns. During the pandemic, she said, it’s easy to fall into the habit of focusing on the worst, which is known as a negativity bias. She gives her patients techniques to practice when this happens, such as meditating or making lists of what they are grateful for.

Another aspect of the pandemic’s mental health crisis is what clinical social worker Warren Graham described as a “dual consciousness,” in which people are striving to balance their need to practice social distancing with their need to socialize.

“It’s causing a lot of internal conflict for people who want that human contact and connection,” Graham said, “but they also want to be safe at the same time.”

Graham, who has a private practice in Merrick, said he believed more people should be talking about the mental health effects of the pandemic. “We might not even know the depth to which people are affected until we come out about it,” he said.

Graham has noticed an increase in anxiety in many of his clients that, he said, turned into depression over time because of a lack of human connection. “Being on Zoom is great if you need it, but it’s not the same as sitting in front of people and having a cup of coffee,” he said.

In his younger clients, he said, he has noticed more detachment and apathy. Without a means of making their mark among their peers through sports and other activities, many children are showing more signs of depression.

According to the American Psychological Association’s “Stress in the Time of Covid-19” poll, roughly 71 percent of parents surveyed said they were worried about the impact the pandemic has had on their children’s social development. And roughly 55 percent reported that their children have manifested behavioral issues since the start of the pandemic.

“It’s always important to normalize their feelings,” Graham said. “It’s not unreasonable that they’re contemplating going out and risking their health just to be around people.”

But, he added, it’s important to find creative ways to foster human connections while still following safety guidelines. He said he wasn’t surprised to see the growth in trends like car parades and games played on Zoom.

The APA also found that 70 percent of Americans are feeling psychological stress about the economy, as compared with the 46 percent it reported last year in its survey “Stress in America.”

The pandemic’s effects on the economy have been a major issue for Nicholas Giampetruzzi, a mental health counselor with the City University of New York who helps physically and mentally disabled students find employment opportunities. “During the pandemic, it’s been kind of difficult to do what I do,” he said. “There’s very, very little in terms of jobs out there, let alone jobs for those with disabilities and mental illnesses.”

In the interim, much of Giampetruzzi’s work has been helping his clients develop plans of action, as they consider what they want to do when the crisis ends.

“There’s been a lot of anxiety and a lot of depression,” he said. “Even getting technology from their school poses a challenge to some who are socio-economically disadvantaged. It’s been really hard for them, and a lot of them had their symptoms worsen.”

Like Graham, Giampetruzzi also stressed the importance of helping his clients find productive ways to spend their free time. “They need to keep themselves occupied,” he said, “because it’s a distraction from their negative thoughts.”