Depression during a pandemic: 6 steps for taking control of your mental health

After the coronavirus pandemic was declared, antidepressant prescriptions surged across the nation, including in Tennessee. Anxiety and depression felt somewhat universal, and that caused many people to seek help for issues they might have ignored in the past.

That, of course, is a positive thing. Seeking help for mental health is always a good idea. But it also means many Tennesseans may now have questions about COVID-19 and depression many months into the pandemic.

WellTuned spoke with Dr. Jill Amos, licensed behavioral health psychologist for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, to learn more.

Are any groups of people at increased risk of anxiety or depression during the pandemic?

Anxiety and depression can affect anyone,” says Dr. Amos, “however there are some vulnerable populations that may see higher rates.”

Those populations include:

  • Children and teens
  • Older people
  • Anyone previously diagnosed with a mental health condition
  • Anyone who has an uncontrolled chronic health condition or illness
  • People who are under financial stress (losing jobs, being unable to pay bills)
  • People who don’t have a support system
  • Minority populations, who are disproportionately affected by socioeconomic factors.

“At this point, just having the mental or physical ability to get through things is key,” says Dr. Amos. “We all have to watch out for our own mental well-being, and for others who may need our help.”

Can an event like coronavirus cause a person to become clinically depressed?

“Yes. Depression can be environmentally driven, and certainly in long-standing situations like we’re in now where there’s no definite end in sight,” says Dr. Amos.

“Whether or not someone will become clinically depressed depends on multiple factors, including one’s support system and historical use of coping strategies.”

If someone started medication for depression in the early days of the pandemic, is there anything they should do now?

“There are absolutely steps people can take to ensure their medication is working the best it possibly can,” says Dr. Amos.

1. Stay in touch with your primary care physician (PCP)

Effective treatment of depression relies on communication. Your provider will need to check in with you at least every 6 months for most medications. But if you’re having problems, don’t wait until your next appointment. Reach out as soon as you have a concern.

2. Don’t stop taking your medication

It’s tempting to stop taking medication once you feel better, but that can be dangerous, especially when it comes to mental health.

“Don’t change or stop your dosage without talking to your provider first,” says Dr. Amos.

3. Be careful of increases in substance use

People are using more alcohol and opioids than they were pre-pandemic, both of which were already problems in Tennessee.

People on antidepressants need to be especially careful because:

  • Alcohol is a depressant itself, so it can worsen feelings of anxiety and depression
  • Alcohol can cause medications to be less effective, and
  • Prolonged alcohol use can lead people to think the alcohol isn’t affecting them as much, which leads to even more drinking.

4. Know that medication can’t do it all

“It’s not realistic to expect a pill to completely improve your mood,” says Dr. Amos. “Medication is always more effective when it’s paired with lifestyle change and/or therapy.”

Consider:

  • Seeking therapy as a supplement to medication
  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Getting good sleep
  • Exercising

“Exercising is especially important as the seasons change,” says Dr. Amos. “When there’s less daylight, people are more likely to get depressed and less likely to exercise, under any circumstances.”

5. Take advantage of telehealth

Telehealth is a highly flexible service that’s more widely available now than ever before.

“If your schedule prevents you from seeing a doctor during normal business hours, there’s a high likelihood that doctor may now be available different hours now than they would have been before — such as early Saturday morning or late Friday night,” says Dr. Amos.

“There’s also added privacy now when it comes to mental health. For example, if you’ve been wary of in-person therapy, now you can do it from the privacy of your own home.”

6. Practice compassion — with yourself and others

Parents, in particular, need to set aside time for self-care, says Dr. Amos.

“Children can’t thrive if parents are not taking care of themselves,” she says.

In general, we all need to cut each other some slack.

“The thing about this pandemic is that everybody is dealing with it, from your boss to your parents to your healthcare providers,” says Dr. Amos. “Whoever your go-to person is, they’re dealing with this as well, and that’s important to remember.

“Everyone is doing their best, and many people still feel isolated. Let’s try to support each other as much as possible.”

For more tips from Dr. Amos on coping with the pandemic, click here. 

If you or a loved one are struggling with mental illness, click here.

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

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BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee members can access wellness-related discounts on fitness products, gym memberships, healthy eating and more through Blue365®. BCBST members can also use tools and resources to help improve health and well-being by logging into BlueAccess and going to the in the Member Wellness Center under the Managing Your Health tab.

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Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).