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Throughout the pandemic, the topic of mental health has been more essential than ever before. Children and students, senior citizens, homeless and low-income residents, medical workers, and veterans are among the most vulnerable populations in Orange County regarding mental health. Like many, they have been impacted by COVID-19 in devastating ways, which has taken a toll on their mental wellness.


Editor’s Note: This story is part of a series on Orange County’s mental health. All stories are produced by students in a digital journalism course at Chapman University. This story, the second in the series, was written by Savannah Sauer and edited by Faith Smith. Click here to see the full series. To inquire or write us about our Voice of OC Youth Media program or this piece of work, send an email to squick@voiceofoc.org.


Children and Students

According to the 26th Annual Report on the Conditions of Children in Orange County, the shift from normalcy that occurred due to COVID-19 transformed the day-to-day lives of students and families. The average school routine that children were accustomed to has shifted dramatically to fulfill COVID-19 guidelines and adapt to an online learning platform.

The report explains that the pandemic has illuminated issues affecting students’ well-being, such as the lack of available technology, food insufficiency, and overall safety in their homes and communities.

Alexandra Hansen-Ankerstar, a therapist with Chapman University’s Student Psychological Counseling Services, noted declines in students’ mental health due to the sudden changes caused by the pandemic. 

“I have noticed an increase in symptoms of depression, anxiety, and grief. Students are struggling with finding motivation for classes, getting out of their rooms, keeping a schedule, exercising, or interacting with others,” she said.

She also explained that students are more anxious about the future than ever. The current circumstances have shown how unpredictable the world can be, according to Hansen-Ankerstar. 

“What has been presented is more fears with the future, especially with students [who] are graduating and not sure how they are going to find a job,” Hansen-Ankerstar said. 

Danielle Kraft, a teacher at Orange High School, claimed that the increased isolation the pandemic caused had affected students’ mental health. She acknowledged that there were students who suffer from unhealthy living situations, and for them, school was a form of escape.  However, with schools staying mainly virtual, that escape is no longer available for them.

“These kids have been ripped out of the system and thrown back in, ripped out and thrown back in again. It’s been horrible,” Kraft said.

Like students, teachers and educators had to adjust to the changes in the education format and lack of contact this year. 

Kraft added that the pandemic disrupted the routine of going to the teachers’ lounge and seeing other educators, which was small but vital to them. “I see about five teachers a day. I used to see about thirty to forty,” Kraft recounted. She elaborated on the stress the pandemic caused her:

“I have taught twenty-two years, and this has been the worst period of my life. In terms of teaching, I want to walk around and hug [everyone] and be there for [them]…it’s been awful,” Kraft said. 

Senior Citizens

Due to COVID-19 restrictions and their higher vulnerability to the disease, senior citizens have been instructed to follow strict protocols to keep themselves and others around them healthy. Though these protocols are meant to ensure their physical well-being, the population has still suffered from declines in mental health. 

Many senior citizens living in caregiving facilities are now denied visits from their family members or loved ones in order to prevent the further spread of COVID-19. As a result, there has been a substantial increase in the need for mental health services in nursing homes and retirement communities.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic mainly puts older adults at risk, it has also taken a toll on senior citizens’ mental health. According to the article, “COVID-19: the implications for suicide in older adults,” the pandemic has a high likelihood of resulting in the multiplication of suicidal risk factors.

The article explained that living alone and social isolation are typically risk factors that are tied to suicide. However, even before the pandemic, older adults, especially those in nursing homes, commonly experience a substantial amount of loneliness. The sense of loneliness is now exacerbated by the restrictions that the pandemic has put on the older populations, restricting most people from seeing their families and participating in hobbies or activities that can be therapeutic. 

“The Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic on Elderly Mental Health”, a study written by Debanjan Banerjee, states that social isolation contributes to senior citizens’ vulnerability to mental health issues, as well as the ‘information overload’ that most of them receive about their demographic being labeled ‘at risk.’   

“Social distancing, though a major strategy to fight COVID-19, is also a major cause of loneliness, particularly in settings like nursing-care or old-age homes, which is an independent risk factor for depression, anxiety disorders and suicide,” Banerjee said.

Banerjee emphasized the importance of the public keeping a close watch on senior citizens’ mental health and exploring various resources that are beneficial to them.

“Mental health is the cornerstone of public health, more so in [senior citizens]…regular telephonic counseling sessions, healthy contact with family, relevant and updated information, caring for the general medical and psychological needs and respecting their personal space and dignity are important components of… mental health care.”

Medical Workers

Medical workers stand at the forefront of the pandemic since they witness the effects of COVID-19 firsthand. The trauma of being surrounded by the virus that struck the world has left some lasting effects on them. 

The study, “Conceptualization, Assessment, and Treatment of Traumatic Stress in First Responders: A Review of Critical Issues,” indicates that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is commonly found among first responders due to the consistent stress they undergo within their line of work. 

“Given the high frequency and severity of traumatic exposures, it is not surprising that first responders are at an elevated risk for developing PTSD,” the study states.

Alexis Zdanov, a worker at Stretchlab, an alternative health care facility in Costa Mesa, explained the various ways that the pandemic has worsened her mental health. 

“Since the pandemic, I have had an increased amount of anxiety going into my job doing manual therapy both for the safety of myself and my clients. However, I do very much look forward to going into work and working one on one with clients since social interactions outside of close friends are so rare nowadays,” she said.

A healthcare worker stands outside of Fountain Valley Regional Hospital on July 2, 2020.

Similar to Zdanov, Max Strul, a student volunteer at St. Joseph Hospital explained that prior to COVID-19 medical workers were able to formulate stronger relationships with patients because there were not as many barriers that restricted them. The extra precautions that the hospital took not only lessened opportunities to bond with patients, they also were a reminder of how cautious medical workers had to be. 

“It was a lot more stressful in the sense that I [always approached] situations with a lot more caution, whereas before…there was a lot of camaraderie amongst the relationships you develop,” Strul said.

Strul added that the pandemic increased anxiety among other workers.  

“A lot of [my co-workers were] more stressed out, and they actively talked about how stressful the pandemic was, especially when COVID cases were at a high,” Strul said. 

The article, “The mental health of healthcare workers in the COVID-19 pandemic: A systematic review,” explains the ways that medical workers have been placed under mentally exhausting circumstances during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The article explains the psychological pressure healthcare workers have endured during the pandemic and that mental illness can often spur from these challenging situations. The authors recommend that it would be beneficial to have supportive platforms that will further help health care workers at this time.

According to the American Cancer Society, medical workers have taken on personal roles since family members are prohibited from seeing patients. 

“Because families cannot be at a dying patient’s bedside, nurses and nursing assistants often have been called on to be conduits for video calls and emotional support,” write Bryn Nelson and David Kaminsky.

With the increased demand for healthcare workers, most medical staff at various facilities have been working long, strenuous hours. There tend to be multiple stressors, with little relief. 

The article, “Mental health problems faced by healthcare workers due to the COVID-19 Pandemic,” suggests that the best way to address mental health issues among medical workers is to create multidisciplinary mental health teams that will provide them psychological support.

“Regular [mental health] screening of medical personnel should be done for evaluating stress, depression, and anxiety…” the article states.

For medical workers who have encountered the stress of the pandemic, the pressure of their jobs increased, emphasizing their need for mental health resources. 

Veterans

Veterans’ mental health has been impacted by COVID-19 due to how isolation and social distancing can bring up past trauma for them. The article “Aging Veterans’ Mental Health and Well-Being in the Context of COVID-19: The Importance of Social Ties During Physical Distancing” elaborates on veterans’ various connections to the pandemic.

“Several facets of life during the COVID-19 pandemic are reminiscent of wartime… concern about shortages of food and medical supplies; separation from family; constant references to mortality; and a general sense of uneasiness, powerlessness, and uncertainty,” write Christina Marini, Anica Kaiser, Brian Smith and Katherine Fiori.

Roy Gibson, President of the Military Benefit foundation, has seen the pandemic’s effects on veterans’ mental health. Gibson recalled a recent phone call he had with an Army veteran who had a disability pension.

“He had terrible back pain and other serious physical problems. His chiropractor had recently become frustrated with him and refused treatment. He had also, before the pandemic, been getting physical therapy at a local VA hospital, but that stopped when hospitals ceased all elective treatment in favor of COVID-19 patients. [He] told me he was severely depressed and had nowhere to turn.”

In response, Gibson provided the Veterans Crisis Line’s phone number, telling him to call immediately after their discussion, and recommended he call the VA hospital to seek elective treatment.

“I called after two days and was amazed to hear a dramatic change. He sounded like a different man,” Gibson said. “He said his hour-long conversation with the VCL representative was extremely encouraging.  He also told me that the VA hospital had accepted him for physical therapy.”

According to the article, “Virtual Mental Health Care in the Veterans Health Administration’s Immediate Response to Coronavirus Disease-19,” virtual mental health resources offered to veterans have increased. 

The Veterans Health Administration “provided nearly 1.2 million telephone and video encounters to veterans in April 2020. …by June 2020, VHA had an 11-fold increase in encounters using direct-to-home video and a fivefold increase in telephone contacts relative to before the pandemic.”

Though the pandemic is emotionally upsetting for many veterans, various resources and hotlines are available to provide veterans with the help they need.

Low-Income & Homeless People

Living in low-income households has been directly linked to several kinds of health issues, not excluding mental health. According to the article, “Improving Mental Health Access for Low-Income Children and Families in the Primary Care Setting,” the need for mental health care in low-income communities has increased, but it is often difficult for members of the population to receive it.

The county’s Courtyard homeless shelter in Santa Ana on June 23, 2020. It’s unclear if there’s been coronavirus outbreaks at the shelter.

Throughout the pandemic, low-income and homeless residents have been severely affected by the lack of available resources and the closures of many useful facilities. 

The article stated that “Families in rural areas, in particular, often have to travel long distances to access mental health services.”  Additionally, the lack of insurance and quantity of mental health services provided can prevent children and families from receiving the mental health care services they need. 

There are still organizations that make efforts to help homeless and low income populations, one of which is Orange County United Way, a non-profit organization that raises money for programs to benefit low-income families and the homeless. The organization implemented programs to assist communities throughout Orange County, including those that address the stressors put onto low income and homeless families. 

Find Help

Despite the issues these vulnerable populations face, various organizations are making efforts to assist them. Click the info card below (and click on each item) to find resources that may benefit you or a loved one.

In addition, here is a resource specifically for senior citizens on mental health amidst COVID-19.

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