As D.C. Reopens, Some Locals Are Struggling With Pandemic Anxiety As the region begins to reopen, locals are struggling with fear, anxiety, uncertainty and — on top of it all — isolation.
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NPR logo As D.C. Reopens, Some Locals Are Struggling With Pandemic Anxiety

As D.C. Reopens, Some Locals Are Struggling With Pandemic Anxiety

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On Friday, the District of Columbia began its first stage of reopening, and Lana is terrified. The Columbia Heights resident, who asked to be identified by her first name to speak freely about mental health struggles, says she doesn't plan to patronize any newly opened businesses for the foreseeable future.

"I'm not going to pretend that this is all over so that I can get my hair or nails done," she tells DCist. "I find it pretty dystopian and cruel to pretend that nothing is happening because you need your hair cut."

Since the pandemic hit the D.C. area and she began working from her apartment, Lana says she's been struggling with near constant fear and anxiety that she can't cope with in the usual ways. She can't see friends; she hasn't been able to get off of long waiting lists to see a therapist over Zoom; she even feels afraid to walk outside. Her fears are centered around the idea that she might unknowingly pass the virus on to someone else — someone who might be more vulnerable than her. Columbia Heights has been a hot spot for the virus, particularly for Latino residents, who have the highest incidence of infection in the city.

"I've realized that the way I always kept everything under control was by being able to go outside. And now I can't go outside," she says. "I panic spiral about me being the one to get people sick. What if I get somebody sick who doesn't have health insurance? Who has to go to work because they work in a restaurant or something and now this has completely devastated their family? I just panic spiral at the thought of that."

Lana's persistent "panic spirals," which have been keeping her awake late into the night, are extremely common among people who find themselves struggling more than usual during the pandemic, according to mental health professionals who spoke with DCist. Across the city, like the rest of the world, people are grappling with the loss of their jobs, their health, their loved ones and their normal lives. In D.C., where so many people are so work-oriented — and where many young people live away from their families and other loved ones — there are also particular challenges to overcome.

And after a weekend of heated local protests after another police killing of an unarmed black man, this time in Minneapolis, the burdens of the last few months — isolation, the threat of disease, the loss of loved ones, unemployment — have been compounded for black Washingtonians in particular. The protests have laid bare a profound anger and grief from black people in the city, kicked up after every loss of life and now showing themselves in the demonstrations against police across the country. Relationships between some black communities in D.C. and the Metropolitan Police Department are profoundly mistrustful and sometimes antagonistic, and police arrest black people in the city at far higher rates than white people.

At a protest on Sunday night, 20-year-old Makia Thorndyke told DCist that any encounter with police fills her with a gut-wrenching anxiety — she tenses up, reminding herself not to make any sudden movements. "That's a traumatizing thing to have to deal with all the time," she said.

"Anxiety tops everything, because we don't have access to so many things that help us get less anxious, like connections to family and friends and things like that," says Priscilla Dass-Brailsford, a trauma psychologist and adjunct professor of psychiatry at the Georgetown School of Medicine. "Isolation is another one that's rampant right now, and both of those can develop into major mental health issues."

There is particular risk for older adults, people who live alone and frontline workers, who sometimes have to isolate from their families at home after working grueling, emotionally difficult shifts, Dass-Brailsford says.

But in a situation where so many people are constantly cooped up in their homes or have been laid off from their jobs — not to mention the looming threat of illness and death over everyone's head — no one is immune. For some, the increased emotional stress can become dangerous.

"Any time there is this powerlessness, when folks feel pretty powerless over the outcomes of their lives, there's a risk of seeing suicidal ideation or self-injurious behavior," says Delishia Pittman, a practicing psychologist in D.C. and an assistant professor in counseling at the George Washington Graduate School of Education and Human Development. "I'm on call in this pandemic in a way that I'm typically not. Some clients really spiral between sessions and need some additional support, so I am always trying to help there in ways that mitigate suicidal ideation." (The D.C. Department of Behavioral Health set up a dedicated mental health hotline at the start of the pandemic, which you can reach at 1-888-793-4357.)

Kyle Storm, a Ward 4 resident, tells DCist that he's been struggling a great deal more with his mental health since the pandemic started and has had to seek out extra help from his mental health care providers. He's been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, which in his case means he has symptoms of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Storm also suffers from agoraphobia, an anxiety disorder characterized by fear of outside places.

"Even before the quarantine, it was very difficult for me to get out. I'm very much a homebody, because when I leave the apartment, I feel anxious and I feel like people are watching me," he says. "But the quarantine just threw fuel on the fire for me. With COVID-19 out there it's like whenever I try to leave the apartment, it becomes very difficult for me, because I'm afraid that I'm ... going to catch the disease."

Storm's psychiatrist recently prescribed him Xanax in an effort to help him cope with his spiking feelings of panic. But he says he feels some relief at the prospect of reopening, hopeful that Mayor Muriel Bowser and her task force have managed to get things under control enough that D.C. can have some semblance of normalcy back. The thought has helped him relieve some of the anxieties that were worse in the beginning, he says.

But Storm was also recently laid off from his job and has been experiencing an increase in depressive symptoms as a result.

Both Pittman and Dass-Brailsford say that work-related stressors are some of the biggest problems for their clients in D.C., both for those who have lost their jobs and those who still have them.

"The unexpected thing that's emerged is a little bit of an identity crisis. D.C. is a place where people get high off the rat race, the hustle and bustle, for better or worse," Pittman says. "That has really been taken away [for some people]. The rush of the grind looks really different right now."

For other people, the grind is unrelenting — so much so that it's making them sick.

"People are experiencing a lot of burnout," Pittman says. "Also some people are really struggling to be productive in this quarantine space. Their productivity is suffering, which is also threatening how they know themselves to work."

Dass-Brailsford says that the lack of structure typically imposed by a physical workplace and regular routine have sent many of her clients into a tailspin — sleeping and eating at odd hours, binge watching television and struggling to get anything done in their homes.

In addition to the stressors of their job, parents have found themselves having to put on a "24-hour variety show" for their children, Pittman says.

All of that taken together can create situations that begin to feel untenable, stretching people beyond their emotional limits.

There are some simple steps Pittman says she recommends to clients, when they're able, to help keep their heads above water: Shower every day, she says, even if you won't be seeing anyone else. Exercise in your house, or take a walk or a jog outside. Get some sunshine if you can, at least for a short time. If you're not already seeing a therapist, try to get one — though right now, many waiting lists for virtual appointments in the city are quite long. Pittman recommends apps like TalkSpace if you're unable to see a professional, and Dass-Brailsford says you should stay on the waiting list as long as it takes to get off it.

Lana says she'd been meaning to get around to finding a therapist before quarantine, and now that the pandemic has started, she's had trouble finding one. Many of the people she's emailed haven't even written her back, she says.

Instead of therapy, Lana says, she's adopted a slew of other coping mechanisms. She recently took a personal day from work because she kept crying in the middle of her work day, she says. She sits in her apartment and scrolls through TikTok videos and she calls her mom.

The region's gradual reopening isn't making things any easier for her, either. "I'm terrified to go back into the world," she says. "I'm scared that it'll hit a second wave."

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