“It’s another pandemic”: How Those With Mental Illness are Affected in the Coronavirus era

One in a Series of Articles from the Spring J322 Reporting Public Issues Course

When students in J322 (Reporting Public Issues) transitioned to online learning, one student expressed concern that she had planned to write the best piece of her college career this semester and it would no longer be possible by reporting remotely. Attitudes quickly changed to, “We’ve got this!” And they did. On the final day, that student said she did submit the finest piece – so far – of her college career. The J322 series of articles showcases students' work during this unique moment in history.

“It’s another pandemic”: How Those With Mental Illness are Affected in the Coronavirus era

Editor’s note: Helen S. requested her full name not be published and she be referred to as Helen S. to protect her privacy. B.J. requested his full name not be published as well.

Throughout her life, Helen S. has endured 40 years of mental illness, has been prescribed 64 medications, diagnosed with five mental illnesses and had only begun to recover in the past eight years. Then a global pandemic posed a heavy threat against her -- isolation.

“It’s a double whammy for us with mental illness,” Helen said. “It’s another pandemic.”

She moved to Austin several years ago as a playwright and mental health advocate after spending the past 40 years in Manhattan making a career in New York theater. From Broadway to Central Texas, Helen has described her fight against mental illness as uphill work.

“It is just so lonely and you think you’re stuck in a horrible alien universe with problems that no one else has,” Helen said. “And of course, you later learn that’s not true.”

During the pandemic, individuals with mental illness face their own particular struggle while in self-isolation during Texas’ stay-at-home order, said Amber Goggia, the interim director for the non-clinical mental health recovery program, Austin Clubhouse.

Amid rules against gatherings and socialization, Helen and others with mental illness had to adapt to the new guidelines, while adjusting how to cope and seek treatment for mental illness. Additionally, mental health professionals had to promptly change how they support those with mental health difficulties.

Since the pandemic has evolved, Goggia and licensed psychologist Dr. Don Johnson have seen injurious effects on individuals with mental health diagnoses, including an increase in anxiety, stress, depression and loneliness.

Under normal conditions where social distancing and masks do not apply, Helen said group therapy helped tremendously in tackling loneliness.

“Group therapy has probably been where I've learned the most and gotten the most intelligent support from being with my peers, because, you know, they get it,” Helen said. “We all get it.”

In order to maintain caring for his clients outside his office, Johnson switched his appointments to video and phone conferencing, which he said was a recommendation made by both the Texas Psychological Association and the American Psychological Association. Johnson has also offered support to his clients via text messages and phone calls.

For his clients, Johnson said it has been an easy transition to this type of communication because many of them are used to it either from school or work.

When the pandemic started affecting Johnson’s practice, however, a few of his clients hesitated about switching to virtual sessions.

“[Those clients] said they could wait until we could go back to person to person,” Johnson said. “But I’ve received calls from them since because their anxiety spiked in solitude, and isolation has been real, real hard. So they have reached out to do phone calls or video conferencing.”

At Austin Clubhouse, Goggia said the transition was quick in order to provide their services online while the program’s doors are closed.

“It's unprecedented,” Goggia said. “We've never done anything like this before for these circumstances, especially since [Austin Clubhouse] is all about face-to-face contact and having a space for people to come and feel accepted in this judgment-free environment. Trying to wrap our heads around how can we do that if we're not physically on site was discombobulating.”

Since the transition, the Clubhouse has also incorporated a lot of virtual activities in their program including show and tell and writing classes.

Even those who may not have access to a computer or internet, have access to phones so the Clubhouse can at least provide support through phone calls, Goggia said.

“We just wanted to maintain that sense of community as a whole,” she said.

Johnson was not the only mental health care professional who saw individuals discouraged by virtual sessions. Goggia said Austin Clubhouse members have also been wary about trying virtual communication during the pandemic.

There have been many different reactions from members in response to the Clubhouse’s transition to virtual communication. Some members do not need the extra guidance from the Clubhouse during this time because they have extra family support at home. Others, however, are just not in a good place, Goggia said.

“Each individual is going to experience this differently or in their own way,” Goggia said. “Reaching out for us and staying connected is so essential that such a big part of what we do and what we believe in to help during recovery. We are very good at tracking the communication that we have with our members in real time and we've been very, very focused on the folks who generally would engage with us more often and who we have not heard from lately.”

Even though Helen is not an Austin Clubhouse member, she has found her own way reconnecting with her peers to keep that sense of community she depended on so greatly before the stay-at-home order.

As part of her new self-isolation routine, Helen created a daily schedule of when and who she will call or video conference to continue relationships with her peers. This includes her Austin and New York friends and her therapist in New York.

She also incorporates virtual lunches and reading into her day-to-day life and has paused writing to avoid feeling overwhelmed by her work and projects.

Helen said creating the balance and structure for herself is essential to cope with the diagnoses she has, which includes borderline personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Initially, she struggled in adapting to her new circumstances and to create this new lifestyle.

“Like most Americans, for the first weeks here, I've sort of been in a state of shock,” Helen said. “You know, you just can't fathom it and still can't fathom it. But just a couple days ago, I sort of woke up for the first time and I felt much more in the present and it wasn't dissociating.”

B.J., an Austin Clubhouse member who is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, major depressive disorder and a couple of anxiety disorders, has admitted the difficulty for him to stay up and motivated during self-isolation.

However, he maintains a routine which includes teaching himself how to play guitar, going on walks and continuing his communication with his peers through mental health and disability organizations like Austin Clubhouse, B.J. said.

Even on the days where he lacks the willpower, B.J. is taking self-isolation as an opportunity for self-improvement and as time to focus on himself.

“We're going to get through this at some point and we're going to be stronger for it,” B.J. said.

Helen has a similar perspective by realizing there will be a silver lining after the pandemic for those with mental illness, she said.

“Just the fact that we came through this will be huge,” Helen said. “People will find reserves of strength they didn’t know they had and my hope for those of us with mental illness is to become more comfortable with our own shortcomings and our own fallibility in times of great duress.”

Alyssa Weinstein
J322 Student