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May is Mental Health Awareness Month: COVID may have normalized mental health struggles

The Advocate - 5/16/2022

May 16—May is Mental Health Awareness Month and, according to the World Health Organization, the prevalence of anxiety and depression globally increased by a massive 25% in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic alone.

Social isolation was cited as one of the reasons for the increased stress felt by so many during the pandemic. Add in constraints on people's ability to work or to seek support from loved ones, engage in their communities, loneliness, fear, grief, financial worries and exhaustion from those who work in health care and the perfect storm of a mental health crisis is created.

Mental health care providers in Louisiana say they have felt the crisis up close and personal.

"The pandemic has challenged the resiliency of people who would previously have had no empathy for anxiety and depression," said Roy Petitfils, LPC, whose counseling practice is based in Lafayette with Pax Renewal Center.

Petitfils said the pandemic forced many to deal with realities that were once conceptual — or just for movies.

"Because of the pandemic, these issues became close to home, affecting individuals or someone they loved," he said. "In this way, COVID did help to normalize mental health struggles."

Dr. Mark Zielinski says that stigma is a major reason people don't seek help to address their mental health issues.

"Those who struggle with mental illness are stigmatized not only by others, but they also stigmatize themselves," Zielinski said. "Since the onset of the pandemic, I have seen a lessening of the self-stigmatization."

Zielinski, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at LSU School of Medicine in Baton Rouge, said he believes the lessening of stigma for seeking mental health care is related to the discussion and acknowledgment of COVID-19's enormous impact globally, locally and individually.

"When there is an apparent reason for a problem, people feel more 'normal' trying to take care of it," Zielinski said. "Time will tell if seeking help for mental health struggles will also be less stigmatized by people who do not share those problems."

In short, most mental health professionals in south Louisiana have seen a drastic increase in the number of people seeking services across the board, according to Petitfils. However, Zielinski says that as much as mental health needs have increased due to the pandemic, they have done so "relative to a seemingly bottomless need prior to the pandemic."

We asked Petitfils and Zielinski more about the impact of the pandemic on mental health:

Because the pandemic changed the way people work, what advice do you have for those who may be struggling because their offices are now calling them back?

Petitfils: I suggest that employers practice empathy for their employees who have spent two years adjusting to a new normal. It took months for many of us to adjust to virtual work, some more than others. Understand that asking people to go "back to the office" seems like a return to normal, but in reality it is a return to an old normal. Offer people options for coming in slowly. Allow them to gradually return. Offer opportunities for employees to come in just to connect in person which may give some a sense of longing to be "back together."

Do you have advice for those whose social circles have dwindled because of any variety of issues during COVID and now they find themselves isolated?

Zielinski: From "any variety of issues," I've had the most personal experience with loss of contact with friends on the other side of the political spectrum. There has been no acrimony, but there has been a gradual falling away. I am trying to achieve a more philosophic perspective about our differences of opinions, and I am going to reach out to them because I remember why we became friends in the first place.

Is anxiety more prevalent in younger generations than baby boomers or do the generations simply handle it differently?

Petitfils: The research I've read over the last 10 years indicates that anxiety is higher in younger generations for a multitude of factors. Different generations handle stress and worry differently, but younger generations that have been raised in a sea of technology which delivers more information and bad news to them at such a high rate are likely to experience more anxiety than older generations.

On a personal level, how has the pandemic affected your work and work/life balance? Did you feel the effects of more people seeking mental health services?

Petitfils: Before COVID, I split my time between my clinical work with teens and their families and traveling speaking to teens, families and other mental health professionals on matters of teen mental health. The pandemic obliterated my travel, but I continued to speak virtually, although with radically different content.

What I suspected then which has proven to be true, especially in the case of teens and young people, was that they would not quickly manifest the mental health problems many adults immediately experienced with the pandemic. For many teens it was a much-needed break from living too busy of lives. For teens with social anxiety or social nervousness, it gave them a respite from the daily grind. For the last six months or so now, we are seeing what I am calling lagging indicators of COVID on teen and young adult mental health.

Zielinski: The "life" side of the equation for me has been changed as it has for everybody; family, social and recreational pursuits have been greatly limited. I have resumed some of these things — eating out, traveling, gathering socially, choral singing. I really hope I can safely continue to do so.

As one who practices almost entirely in the outpatient setting, I need to express my admiration for — and appreciation of — my psychiatric colleagues who do inpatient and consult-liaison work. I am not sure about their work/life balance, but I do know that they have been regularly caring for COVID-positive patients in those settings.

Speaking of staying home more, what advice do you have for people who are more hesitant to be as social as they were pre-pandemic?

Petitfils: I'm a very social person. But if I'm honest, I've gained weight and I'm not that thrilled about trotting about in my new, bigger clothes. I know I'm not alone. Re-entry into socializing for many, including social and extroverted people, is a change. It may take some time adjusting. Consider having someone to challenge you and hold you accountable to do one social thing a week, something as simple as visiting a coffee shop alone or with a friend. It doesn't need to be a big event.

Your thoughts on smartphones and mental health? Advice for adults? Advice for parents? (Or is this not the issue it's made out to be by most of the media?)

Petitfils: Technology, screens and especially social media are all wonderful things. But so are cheeseburgers. And too much of either one makes me unhealthy. I know because I've experimented with both. Social media especially is something we should all be mindful of because it affects our brain's dopamine production so much. We've got a lot of people who would experience real physiological withdrawal symptoms if deprived of their devices and ability to check Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter.

Katherine Crapanzano, associate professor of clinical psychiatry and program director of LSU-OLOL psychiatry residency program, says there are options for those seeking mental health services, including the following:

— In crisis, there are free text lines ( and phone lines ( Both are available 24/7.

— Let family and friends know if you need help. There is no shame asking for mental health help! Having a support system can make a big difference.

— The Grief Recovery Center ( does not turn away people for inability to pay. They offer counseling services and free support groups.

Capital Area Human Services District, Baton Rouge's community mental health provider, ( has a plethora of services available for addiction and mental health treatment, counseling and meds. They take Medicaid, Medicare and all private insurances. There is sliding scale for people without insurance.

— The Bridge Center ( has crisis services, but also connects people to longer-term services after the crisis is stabilized.

— Some of the free support groups in the area are listed here:

Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous (; have meetings day and night and always free.

— Check out for additional resources.

— LSU Psychiatry Residency clinic is cash-based primarily, but the price is low and people can usually get in quickly for psychiatric services, some psychological testing and therapy services. Waitlist for adults is minimal.


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