SCOTCH PLAINS/FANWOOD, NJ -- The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted just about every aspect of life: shutting down businesses, closing schools, instituting remote learning, limiting social interactions, and preventing activities, such as sports, from taking place. While government leaders and the CDC report on the physical toll the pandemic is having, COVID is having a serious impact on mental health.

Professionals who deal with mental health issues, including Hellenic Therapy Center and Kairos Chronic Pain Coaching in Scotch Plains, have been inundated with young adults who have had difficulty dealing with the depression and anxiety that have worsened during the pandemic. In recent weeks, the state has seen a rise in young people who have chosen to take their own lives.

“Teens are impulsive. Many times, suicide is a fleeting thought; it’s not necessarily planned out. Sometimes it is sparked by a fight with parents or breaking up with a girlfriend or boyfriend,” said Maria Sikoutris Di Iorio of Hellenic Therapy Center. 

If a gun is used, there’s a higher chance that the suicide attempt will be successful. Drug overdoses have a lower chance of success because a relative can find them, Di Iorio explained. If the individual has made multiple suicide attempts, eventually he or she may be successful because of the percentages. Substances lower their inhibitions, and teens and young adults are not always predictable.

“Teens are emotional, hormonal, and regularly tough (to treat). They may not think they need help and only come because their parents make them,” explained Christina H Chororos, founder of Kairos Chronic Pain Coaching, who says she has seen eating disorders triggered by anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) that typically comes out in late teens.

“When stress is involved, it kickstarts it. There’s a lot going on; the pandemic is where it has originated from,” Chororos said.

Di Iorio explains that part of the problem is that kids haven’t seen peers and friends. Getting together again is socially awkward. They are anxious about what’s it like to see kids again.

“I had a suicidal 14-year-old patient. His parents both worked, there was no one at home, and he was always on Zoom,” the therapist said. “Isolation is the worst. They haven’t been able to hang out. This is the aftermath: they’re still struggling with the pandemic and depression.”

Handling a tragedy is particularly difficult for teenagers because they don’t have coping skills.

“They don’t have the wisdom to handle learning online, managing their emotions and their situations at home. This pandemic can be very stressful,” Chororos said. “They’re having to deal with adult problems while not possessing the coping mechanisms of an adult.

When do teens and young adults seek help?

“They are coming when they are in a lot of pain,” Di Iorio said. “I looked up on CDC, between April – June 2020, the country had the highest rate of suicidal ideation, substance abuse, depression, and anxiety.”

Chororos specializes in coaching strategies and says she spends a lot of time teaching clients coping skills for anxiety, grief, and eating disorders.

“We try to give them hope,” Di Iorio said. “The pandemic won’t last forever. I’ve encouraged patients to start making plans for vacations. Some patients say they have made big purchases (ex: homes, cars, boats) because they feel like they have been kept down. Their feeling is ‘Life is too short; I’m going to do what I want’. And if you don’t have the means to buy these things, it can be depressing.”

Chororos advises self-care.  She advises her patients to get enough sleep, engage in exercise, go outside and enjoy the sunshine and vitamin D.  She also advises young clients to talk to someone they trust.

Importance of self-care

“They’re ashamed to talk to their friends. Choose 1-2 people they can be open and candid with," Chororos said. They will come back and say, ‘I had no idea she was feeling this way.’ These self-care techniques are not for someone in clinical depression, however. They are appropriate for someone who is lightly depressed.”

With teens, breaking down the door is hard. It doesn’t matter gender. If parents pushing, but if the teenage doesn’t think there’s a problem, it makes things much harder.

“Keep an eye out if your kid isn’t acting like they normally do. Examples are sleeping too much, eating too much or too little, a change in routine habits, mood swings, loss of interest in activities,” she said. “If they don’t want to do anything, it’s important to say what’s really happening.”

One way to ask about suicidal thoughts is to alter the question.

“Instead of asking about suicide, instead say, ‘Do you ever get the feeling that you don’t want to be here anymore?’,” Chororos said. “Teens are moody and emotional. It’s easier to give them space than to be all over them. Parents know when their kid is off. There’s no need to be controlling, but we have to be adamant about helping to support them.”

Parents are struggling, too, according to Di Iorio.

“Couples are struggling. They are working at home; they are together and the kids together. There’s so much turmoil and so many disagreements,” she said. “People are finding out what they really want. I encourage them to talk, but I suggest not to make a dramatic change soon after big stressors, such as death or divorce, do not make any immediate changes. You’re not thinking clearly.”

“Now is not the right timing to make a change in your marriage. You’ll think differently. Don’t act on your impulse,” Di Iorio said.