COVID-19 pandemic takes toll on mental health after nearly 2 years

Lawmakers have even instituted mental health days for students in Illinois

ByKay Cesinger WLS logo
Sunday, January 2, 2022
Our Chicago

CHICAGO (WLS) -- It's been nearly two years since the start of the COVID pandemic. Since then, more than 815,000 Americans have died.

There is currently a surge in cases and hospitalizations. And some of those "normal" gatherings that had returned -- such as live theater and sporting events -- are now in limbo as health officials try to address the spread of the omicron variant.

So as 2022 begins, many are coping with mental health struggles.

"Our baseline has changed," said Alexa James, the CEO of National Alliance on Mental Illness Chicago, "I want you to think about it this way, what typically was our rhythm and regulation, what helped us feel re-energized, being with people, going to the theater, having gatherings, right, having some normalcy, not being so afraid all the time. That has really changed."

WATCH: Our Chicago: Mental health nearly 2 years into pandemic Part 1

"Many of us are hyper-vigilant or anxious in a way we've never experienced before, feeling hopeless. So is this our new normal of the world? Maybe. But it doesn't have to be our new normal in terms of our mental health," said James.

She said when people call the NAMI helpline, they ask, "Who's around you that does make you feel reenergized? Or, who is a good listener in your space? What are small things you do throughout the day that kind of make you feel more energized? And it can be dosing of like five minutes at a time. If we can build those into our days more regularly that's helpful."

RELATED: Chicago's Coffee, Hip Hop & Mental Health helps people access therapy, no matter their circumstance

And adults aren't alone in their struggles.

"I think before the pandemic we were seeing a rise in rates of depression, anxiety and suicidal attempts in children and self-harm behaviors, and with the pandemic, those statistics have increased a number-fold," said Dr. Trang Pham-Smith, a pediatric trauma psychologist at Advocate Children's Hospital. "There are things we can do as parents and as a society with our own kids in the home, having those conversations is one of them, parents being able to sit down with their children and having conversations about what's going on in their lives, checking in a little bit more often, setting routines and structure, trying to keep things as close to pre-pandemic times as possible."

WATCH: Our Chicago: Mental health nearly 2 years into pandemic Part 2

And she urges parents to "be real" with their kids.

"I think we're all struggling through this pandemic together. The trauma that everyone is experiencing together is real. And just being real with your kids because they know there's something going on and just being open and honest with those conversations as much as possible," she said.

New laws allow for students in Illinois to have up to five excused absences for mental or behavioral health, not just physical illness, to prioritize their mental health.

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