NORTH ATLANTA, Ga. — Research on America’s first six months battling the coronavirus has doctors and mental health experts alarmed. It shows dramatic increases in domestic violence, substance abuse, depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts for women.
This perfect storm is a combination of social isolation, being confined to homes with abusers, taking on most family and domestic responsibilities, working from home, working in public and financial stress if unemployed or underemployed.
“There’s been a lot of extra pressure that women seem to be bearing the brunt of,” said Dr. Rebecca Gomez, a clinical health psychologist with Wellstar Medical Group.
Data shows women are reporting greater emotional distress related to the pandemic compared to their male counterparts, Gomez said.
An August Center for Disease Control and Prevention study involving nearly 2,800 women showed more than 41 percent suffered an adverse mental or behavioral health symptom. More than 12 percent started or increased substance abuse to cope with pandemic-related stress or emotions. Nearly 250 of those women seriously considered suicide in June.
Comparing September 2019 to September 2020, Gomez said Wellstar hospitals have seen a 26 percent increase in patients experiencing suicidal thoughts or attempts.
She said seniors are also dealing more with depression and loneliness. Many in the older population are not comfortable going to the doctor on their own or using virtual apps, she said.
Gomez offered her best advice for getting through the hardships of the coronavirus recession.
“First and foremost, please stay connected with your medical healthcare,” Gomez said, adding the importance of exercise. “Look at your routine. Chances are they’ve changed, but are you maintaining a consistent routine?”
Gomez said 30 minutes of moderate activity a day is equivalent to a low dose antidepressant. She advises women to watch their diet and remain social while physically distancing.
Frontline numbers tell story
Dr. Michael Lipscomb, a physician at Wellstar North Fulton Hospital, said the problem is apparent in his emergency room.
“There’s definitely an uptick in the number of substance abuse, depression, suicidal thoughts across most of our facilities,” Lipscomb said, speaking just of the emergency rooms alone.
Lipscomb said many Atlanta-area hospitals are so overwhelmed, patients are diverted to other medical facilities for psychiatric care. That is despite a 40 percent drop in routine and emergency room visits due to coronavirus fears.
“Our ability to take care of psychiatric patients is now stretched,” Lipscomb said.
Tammy von Nordheim, a mental health therapist at Growth and Wellness Therapy Center in Roswell, said she sees the coronavirus recession affecting women of different ages in different ways.
“I have the young group, ages 25 to 30, they are struggling more with isolation,” von Nordheim said. “They’re used to having girls’ night out. And the women ages 35 to 50, primarily they’re struggling with trying to find balance in work, family, and personal time.”
In terms of physical wellbeing during the pandemic, Johns Hopkins Medicine reports a rise in murder-suicide, involving a male partner killing a female and then himself.
Authors at the New England Journal of Medicine have expressed concern that stay-at-home orders to prevent the spread of COVID-19, have trapped victims with their abusers. Their study shows many shelters and hotels remain closed or operate at limited capacity, providing fewer safe havens for women and children escaping abuse.
Internet and cellular service has become vital in maintaining communication during the pandemic. But the Journal reports many women live in areas with unreliable service, and those with access might have an abuser listening nearby.
Race is also a factor
There is also the racial element to the coronavirus and recession, which the experts agree is having a significant impact on the wellbeing of Black and Latina women.
“If you look at the number of COVID deaths, comparing White Americans to Black Americans, the graph is staggering,” Wellstar’s Lipscomb said. “Across all age groups, the death rates, are double for the Black population. That escalates when you reach the age of 75 or 80.”
If you need to be seen by a doctor, Lipscomb said, don’t fear the hospital, because the risk of catching the coronavirus is extremely low. The experts also stressed the importance of normalizing mental healthcare.
Racial unrest in 2020 adds another layer of tension, von Nordheim said.
“I have a section of women who are struggling to manage the different personalities they have to work with, whether it’s a cultural or racial situation,” she said. “As we know, COVID has brought out with it a lot of extra stress that has always been there, but it’s really found a way to rear its ugly head. So, they’re trying to find a level of respect for what they bring to the table.”
Doctors have called upon society and elected leaders to address the wellness of women who are struggling or in danger during the pandemic. They also urge women to be intentional about their self-care.
“The biggest thing I would say is take some time out for yourself. It’s totally 100 percent okay to say, ‘I need some me time and I am not going to be apologetic about it,’” von Nordheim said.