HACKETTSTOWN, NJ (Warren County) – With COVID-19 case numbers dropping in most areas of the country, the CDC and local elected officials are lifting pandemic-related masking and social distancing mandates. As a result, people are beginning to venture out to resume normal activities—some for the first time in 15 months.
While that’s great news, mental health experts warn that not everyone will face a smooth reentry to post-quarantine life. Licensed Professional Counselor Keith Morgen, Ph.D., director of the Centenary University graduate counseling programs, says mental health experts are bracing for a rise in incidents of post-traumatic stress and substance-related and addictive disorders, as well as other mental health disorders brought on and/or exacerbated by the pandemic. “We’ve all gone through an extended, traumatic event,” explained Dr. Morgen, who works with trauma and substance-related and addictive disorders in his New Jersey practice. Dr. Morgen has published in these areas, including books on trauma and substance-related and addictive disorders, and is a former president of the International Association of Addictions and Offender Counselors, a division of the American Counseling Association.
“The first criterion for the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is for the individual to feel that they or someone they care about is at significant risk of harm or death. That’s the context we’ve all been in, so we can check that box off. Everyone in the world went through the pandemic, but not everyone will experience that stress in a similar manner. It will be a challenge for some to recognize that they need help dealing with the stress caused by this traumatic event,” Morgen said.
Centenary University recently introduced a revised 60-credit Master of Arts in Clinical Counseling program that will train students to treat those with co-occurring mental health and substance-related and addictive disorders, a population that is particularly vulnerable to stressors presented by the pandemic. The program offers two concentrations, one of which focuses on the intersection between mental health and substance-related and addictive disorders. The revised master’s program is accepting applications for the fall semester.
Dr. Morgen noted that in his private practice, he began to see an increase last June in the number of people with recurring addiction and mental health issues relapsing due to pandemic-related stress: “It didn’t happen right away, but about three months into the pandemic I started to see an uptick in symptoms and disorders that people previously had under control. The stresses of what they encountered during the pandemic, on top of their own recovery, began to wear on them. I’m also starting to see people who may not have had a previous issue, but are now showing symptoms for the first time. This is going to linger in our society for a long time and having trained mental health professionals in this area will be critical.”
Licensed mental health professionals like Dr. Morgen are predicting that, as daily life resumes, symptoms may be minor or nonexistent for a while before becoming problematic. As the summer progresses and people return to work, dine out at restaurants, attend entertainment events, and reconnect with loved ones, the accompanying distress felt by some could trigger recurring or new mental health issues, as well as substance-related and addictive disorders. Eventually, some individuals will need help from mental health professionals to develop coping skills to move forward.
Dr. Morgen said that one red flag that you or a loved one may need help is outsized hesitation to reenter daily life once you’re vaccinated: “It’s normal to feel a little hesitant right now. But if you’ve been vaccinated, are you remaining at home because you don’t know how to adjust to going back out? Are you still significantly bothered with fear of catching COVID-19? When you start to notice that the context—many vaccinated people and a low number of COVID-19 cases—and your own emotions and behaviors don’t match up, that’s problematic. If your fear to step back into in-person social engagement is impeding your daily functioning and producing distress, that is an alert that you likely need some professional mental health support to assist in your adjustment to life post-pandemic.”
Ultimately, Dr. Morgen said it’s perfectly fine—and a show of your inner strength—to seek help with a trained professional: “Considering everything that has gone on, if you’re not ok that’s fine. It means you’re in touch with what has gone on in the world. Maybe you used to be able to manage stress, but the rules have changed. Now, you’re recognizing that the skillsets you’ve used before no longer effectively manage the distress. What I have been telling all of my patients is that what they are experiencing is a normal reaction to a significantly abnormal situation.”
If you, or someone you know, are having mental health issues related to COVID-19 or other circumstances, go to https://www.nj211.org/covid-19-and-mental-health.