“You’re having feelings of isolation and loneliness like you’ve never had before,” says psychologist Dr. Kevin Gilliland

By Julie Mazziotta
May 13, 2020 05:16 PM
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With the death toll increasing each day and hundreds of thousands of people in the hospital, the physical health effects of the new coronavirus, COVID-19, are clear. But what may not be as obvious is how much the virus is harming people’s mental health.

So far, COVID-19 has significantly increased the mental health struggles of Americans. Nearly half of people who are sheltering in place said that the pandemic has increased their stress or worry, according to a new poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation. The majority of texters to the Crisis Text Line — 84 percent — say they are experiencing stress related to COVID-19, as of April 20. And an alarming projection from the national public health group Well Being Trust estimates that 75,000 Americans could die from drug or alcohol misuse and suicide related to COVID-19.

Dr. Kevin Gilliland, a clinical psychologist and director of Innovation360, an outpatient resource center, and member of PEOPLE’s Health Squad, says he’s seen an increased need for help from his longtime patients and from new sufferers.

“There are a lot more people that need counsel and guidance,” he tells PEOPLE. “You’re having feelings of isolation and loneliness like you’ve never had before. Everybody’s psychological health has taken a hit.”

There are a few likely reasons for the increase in mental health struggles. There are the obvious — grief for those who have died or contracted the virus, unemployment rates, financial woes, anxiety about the future — and reasons that may seem minor, but have a significant effect. That includes the increased isolation as people shelter at home being one, along with the loss of routines and life events.

“Isolation, which is also disconnection from other people, will unravel us psychologically very quickly,” Gilliland says. “I think we've all been surprised by it. And routines are incredible important to us.”

“There are folks that have never struggled like this that are, and then there are those that have struggled before that are really having a difficult time,” he continues. “Those that haven't ever struggled like this are just starting to realize, ‘Wow, I didn't realize how important these things were for me.’ ”

To ease these mental health struggles, therapy may be the key for some people. Most therapists are doing sessions over video or phone, and may offer discounts for people without insurance.

For others, it’s problem solving.

“This is a crisis that's ongoing, and it helps to solve problems,” Gilliland says. “We have to focus on winning today. Did I get the sleep I needed? Have I eaten something healthy? Have I moved? Have I connected with people that are meaningful to me? Have I protected myself from too much information, from too much of things that aren't good for me?”

Gilliland says that he is struggling right now after weeks of working more than ever.

“I just ran out of gas,” he says.

To help himself, Gilliland is applying the same advice he gives his patients, even if it can be tough at times.

“I am being really focused on sleep and on physical activity,” he says. “I worked out for about 30 minutes yesterday and I did not enjoy it at all. It was like taking medicine, but you know what, that's okay. I need to take that medicine.”

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments. PEOPLE has partnered with GoFundMe to raise money for the COVID-19 Relief Fund, a GoFundMe.org fundraiser to support everything from frontline responders to families in need, as well as organizations helping communities. For more information or to donate, click here.