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'Not alone': Mental health experts help patients cope after COVID-19

Doctors say many people recovering from COVID-19 also are dealing with the mental health impacts of the disease, especially anxiety and depression stemming from isolation and other issues. Credit: Danielle Silverman

Mental health experts are exploring the use of virtual support groups and other resources to help recovering COVID-19 patients who are grappling with anxiety and depression as a result of their illness.

Many of those patients are feeling stressed and isolated as they deal with lingering physical effects of the disease, such as fatigue and shortness of breath.

“Some people have been removed from the ability to meet their common human needs — socialization, meaningful work, getting together with family,” said Dr. William Sanderson, a psychologist and director of the Anxiety & Depression Clinic at Hofstra University, which offers a two-session consultation for people suffering from pandemic-related psychological distress. “Every time you block people meeting their needs, it results in emotional distress.”

Battling COVID-19 while keeping an eye on her 1-year-old son left 30-year-old Brookelyn Berardi of Northport exhausted and stressed.

“It comes in waves,” said Berardi, director of strategy and development for Crunch Fitness. “Some days I will be great and then there are days I wake up and I am sad. Other times, I am really frustrated and angry.”

Debbie Rifenbury of Oceanside, who recovered after 17 days in the hospital and six days on a ventilator, said she has trouble sleeping and experiences anxiety. People still are reluctant to come near her, even though doctors say she no longer has the virus.

“I’ve said this before, but I feel like a leper,” said Rifenbury, 61, who has started phone sessions with a therapist and is looking for support groups.

The New York State Office of Mental Health’s Emotional Support Helpline has received more than 20,000 calls since it was implemented March 25, officials said.

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Earlier this month, the state launched a free, six-week “Coping Circles” program that provides support and group therapy by video or phone, run by licensed mental health professionals. Officials said about 200 people have registered so far.

Lisa Penziner, a registered nurse and special projects manager at rehabilitation facilities operator Paragon Management, has started Post COVID-19 Support Group on Zoom that is free and open to the general public.

The first session on June 16 drew 10 participants, with even more asking to join on July 8. Additional meetings are scheduled throughout the summer.

“I’m hearing from a lot of people who are depressed and still having symptoms,” Penziner said. “I thought it would be a good idea to get them together. They probably feel very alone.”

Penziner reached out to Dr. Joanne Shea, a psychologist, to facilitate the group.

“When they talked as a group, I think it was very comforting for them to know they weren’t the only ones feeling this way,” said Shea, who is regional director for Long Island for CHE Behavioral Health Services.

For example, shortness of breath — one of the symptoms many recovering COVID-19 patients experience — can trigger anxiety, she said, just as low energy is associated with depression.

“They want the emotional support and the decreased isolation as well as information from their peers,” she said.

Shea said many of the participants were frustrated by the reports of people not wearing masks or taking the virus threat seriously.

“When you go through such a traumatic, life-threatening situation and others are dismissive, that can be very painful,” she said.

These support groups are different from group therapy sessions, Shea noted. Participants seeking individual psychotherapy will be helped with referrals.

Berardi said she plans to join the next Paragon Zoom support group.

“It’s such a great idea,” she said. “I’m looking forward to knowing I am not alone in my feelings.”

Sanderson and his doctoral students at Hofstra University have created a free self-help guide “Coping with Fear & Sadness During a Pandemic,” which is available on the clinic’s website.

He urged people to share the guide and pay attention to symptoms. Even minor symptoms can be a red flag if they interfere with someone’s ability to function.

“The concern that we have is that reactions to COVID that are mild could turn into disorders beyond the pandemic,” Sanderson said. “Depression is a slippery slope down … we need to help these people now to avoid a bigger problem down the road.”

Coping with COVID-19

There are several free resources for recovering COVID-19 patients and anyone feeling the stress of the pandemic:

  • For information on the New York State Office of Mental Health Coping Circles program, go to NY.Gov/CopingCircles.
  • The state's Emotional Support Helpline provides free and confidential support at 1-844-863-9314.
  • Paragon Management is hosting several free Post COVID-19 Support Group virtual meetings on Zoom this summer. To register, email lisa.penziner@paragonmanagementsnf.com or call 516-457-5585.
  • The Anxiety & Depression Clinic at Hofstra University offers a free self-help guide at psychrescue-covid19.com.

SOURCE: Newsday research

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