With Behavioral Health Executive Director Terry Cassidy, LICSW
Millions of Americans grapple with mental illness every day. Before COVID-19 hit the U.S., 1 in every 5 people were suffering from a mental illness. Now, more than a year into the pandemic, that estimate is a disheartening 1 in every 2 people.
“I still think the estimate is quite low,” said Terry Cassidy, LICSW, who leads Sarasota Memorial’s Bayside Center for Behavioral Health as executive director. “Everybody's been impacted by this pandemic.”
Estimates show that more than 50% of people in the U.S. have experienced depression, anxiety, anger and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) during the pandemic. And it’s our senior population that has been hit the hardest.
“One of the most important things that protect us from mental illness is having really strong social connections with other people. Feeling like you have a purpose. Feeling like you have self-worth,” Cassidy explained. “Research has shown that through the pandemic, all of this has been compromised for everybody, most especially for seniors.”
Prolonged intense stress and isolation have taken their toll on seniors’ mental wellbeing. Loneliness, often called the silent killer, can actually lower life expectancy. Increasing a person’s mortality rate by 30%, loneliness ranks right up there with obesity and cigarette smoking for jeopardizing health.
While many of us have leaned on technology to keep us connected throughout the pandemic, many seniors lack access or the technology know-how to use platforms like video chat apps and social media to connect with loved ones — furthering their sense of loneliness and isolation.
What Can We Do?
If you have a loved one or friend in your life who’s been isolated at home all these months — whether it’s a family member across the country or your neighbor nextdoor — make the time to connect with them in a way they are comfortable with.
Give them a call. Don a mask, and knock on their door. Mail them a card, and include a few photos.
“If there's a senior in your life, make sure you're strengthening that connection. Call them today,” Cassidy said. “Maybe you let that relationship drift a little bit. Reach out, and ask them how they're doing.”
Let them know: “You are not alone.”
Coping Tips for Seniors
Months of isolation have left many seniors struggling to navigate the emerging “new normal,” finding it hard to feel safe venturing out again, even after they’ve been vaccinated and public health experts have given the OK that it’s safe to be around others in many circumstances.
“They're in a very mild form of depression, where they just can't make themselves go out,” Cassidy said. “They still feel the need to isolate, and stay in and watch TV.”
For those finding it hard to break their pandemic self-isolation or who are struggling to get going again, Cassidy suggested the following steps to get back into a routine of mental wellness.
1. Create a daily schedule for yourself.
Be sure that schedule includes some form of appropriate exercise (yoga, stretching, strength building, walking). “Right now, it might feel very difficult to get off the couch and stop watching TV,” she said. “But make a schedule, and make the time to get out there.”
2. Connect with others.
Pick up the telephone, and call someone — an old friend you haven't talked to in a while, a neighbor or a loved one. It can be anyone, but be sure you reach out. Social connections are critical in boosting your mental health.
3. Connect with resources that can help.
“We have some wonderful resources in Sarasota and Manatee counties, including the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) and Senior Friendship Centers,” Cassidy said. “Reach out to them. They have wonderful activities and outreach programs for seniors.”
And remember, you are not alone.
Written by Sarasota Memorial Digital Communications Specialist Ann Key, who manages Healthe-Matters blog and digital newsletter, as well as the health system's social media and other wellness content channels. Have a health question or a wellness topic you'd like a local expert to weigh in on, let her know: Send an email to email@example.com.