Therapists Say A Year Of Isolation Has Taken Its Toll On Many Chicagoans’ Mental Health

illustration of a woman showing her brain
chenspec / Pixabay
illustration of a woman showing her brain
chenspec / Pixabay

Therapists Say A Year Of Isolation Has Taken Its Toll On Many Chicagoans’ Mental Health

The social distancing mandates that turned dinner-and-a-show into delivery-and-streaming have left many people isolated over the past year. As the world begins to return to normal, many people remain mentally scarred by the seismic life changes caused by an ongoing pandemic that has already left a death toll not seen since the 1918 influenza outbreak.

Around the world, COVID-19 has killed at least 2.5 million people, including more than 500,000 in the U.S. And many experts say the real total is significantly higher. In an effort to save lives, officials implemented restrictions that closed schools and businesses, which led to record unemployment.

Despite the hardships, the battle with the virus turned a corner in recent weeks as new cases fell and the Biden administration ramped up vaccine distribution. In Chicago, some public school students have returned for in-person learning, restaurants and bars can now operate at 40% capacity and public spaces like playgrounds reopened just in time for the spring.

Yet Chicago-area mental health professionals say a year of death and isolation has taken a profound toll on mental health and demand for their services has never been higher. With so many requests, therapists say they don’t have the space to treat everyone — and referrals have become nearly impossible because their colleagues are just as busy. Many of these patients are struggling with loneliness caused by strained intimate relationships and the demands of raising children at home instead of interacting with other adults at work.

Therapist Misty Major said depression can creep in with social distancing fatigue or a lack of joy from work or hobbies.

Boredom, Major said, is one possible indicator of depression. However, she said it’s not necessary to pick up new hobbies like baking sourdough or even commit to doing something productive everyday.

Therapist John Hughes, co-founder of the Chicago Center for Relational Health, said it’s important to reach out to friends and family who live alone and might be struggling with isolation — and make sure to follow up.

He also suggested avoiding text messages that ask questions like “how are you doing?,” which can be “burdensome” if it forces an explanation of struggles. Instead, Hughes suggests acknowledging that a friend or relative is having a tough time at the outset of a conversation and then go from there.

Having a partner or roommate has helped many people feel less isolated, Hughes said, but navigating the pandemic with someone else at home can also be difficult.

Counselor Emma Coate said dividing up household chores can be especially stressful. And as shoveling gives way to cutting the lawn, different chores are on the horizon with the change of seasons

Coates said pulling your own weight is just as important as speaking up when shouldering an unfair burden. However, it’s also important to “sit with your own feelings for a little bit [and] process through the resentment, the anger” before starting a conversation where others might feel attacked.

“Try to make it like a problem-solving conversation if you can, rather than … a venting conversation, where you’re just kind of yelling about how angry you are about things,” Coate said.

Beyond a dirty kitchen or bathroom, life in the bedroom has been stressful for many couples too.

Couples counselor Giulia Casani said the pandemic has negatively affected many couple’s sex lives.

When people were initially told to stay home, many couples had “big expectations” that being trapped inside would mean “an amazing sex life,” she said. But that didn’t happen for many of the couples because of unbalanced expectations and new home-life burdens.

Casani said it’s especially important for couples to talk about sex when there are problems, otherwsie “it’s like leaving a blank space to fill with your imagination.”

Whether you are struggling with inner turmoil or relationship issues, Chicago-area therapists agree the key is to keep perspective.

“This is a really traumatic time. So I would encourage people to give themselves compassion, give themselves empathy,” Major said.

Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow him @pksmid. Email him at psmith@wbez.org.