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Professionals warn of uptick in mental health needs as pandemic enters winter

The Lincoln Journal Star - 11/29/2020

Nov. 29--As the winter months creep up and people start to stay inside more, mental health practitioners are worried how COVID-19 and its restrictions will further affect those suffering from seasonal affective disorder.

Diane C. Marti, president of the Nebraska Psychological Association, said the pandemic has increased the need for mental health practitioners across the state.

"We're coming into the winter, and I've already seen it with the uptick of mental health needs. And unfortunately, suicides, that I've been hearing about across the state, that people are really, really struggling," said Marti, a licensed psychologist with offices in Lincoln and Omaha.

"My concern is that we will not have enough mental health care access to meet the needs of the people," she said.

Seasonal affective disorder, also known as SAD, is a type of depression that changes with the seasons and typically begins once the weather gets cold and the days get shorter and darker. Sometimes caused by a deficiency of vitamin D, people who live in northern states are more prone to the disorder.

Although it has similar symptoms to other forms of depression, such as changes in energy, sleep and appetite, the stress and limitations related to the pandemic may worsen the symptoms of SAD within individuals, she said.

"My expectation for somebody who is subject to SAD would be to have more of a severe shift for them than what they were feeling in the summer or in the fall, and then adding just one more layer. Now we have holidays and we have holiday blues," Marti said.

Natalie Swift, a licensed mental health practitioner and owner of Swift Behavioral Solutions in Lincoln and Omaha, said that many people with SAD try to counter their symptoms with distractions such as meeting up with friends and hanging out in public, which is now more difficult with COVID-19 restrictions and social distancing protocols.

People suffering from SAD need to look for ways to ensure the brain is not an "island" during the winter, that they have hobbies or projects to work on or that they can help other people while maintaining social distancing, Swift said.

Denise Stuart, board president of the mental health organization NAMI Nebraska, said 100% of people in the state have had their mental health affected in some way because of the pandemic.

Support and communication are the most important factors in dealing with mental health concerns.

In a morbidity and mortality study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 40% of respondents reported struggling with mental health or substance use. The study showed symptoms of anxiety disorder and depressive disorder increased considerably in the United States during April through June of 2020, compared with the same period in 2019.

"So all of those fears is what's driving NAMI Nebraska to stand taller. Speak louder. Let people know that we're here. And let people know it's OK to not be OK," Stuart said.

Stuart said NAMI's main role is to advocate and support people and families experiencing mental health issues. NAMI has been doing this through various events and support groups, which are all provided virtually because of the pandemic.

"So that way we can still get the needs met for those that are still wanting to stay connected," Stuart said. "Because that's what we really need to do right as human beings, we need to feel connected to a cause or a purpose or somebody just to even sustain our own wellness."

Marti and Swift said it's important for people to recognize feelings of depression, analyze their daily routines for drastic changes and be prepared to counter them by reaching out to family, friends or therapists.

"All of this is bubbling to the surface because of the unknown and the uncertainty. And this is where we can maybe be the anchor and provide that hope for folks of saying, 'We can get through this,'" Stuart said.


Reach the writer at or 402-473-7223.

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