Pandemic Mental Health: Self-Diagnosing, Disparities and U Resources

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Kevin Cody

(Photo by Kevin Cody | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Lizzy Seitz, News Writer

 

During a time when the focus has been on the country’s physical health, mental health may be falling by the wayside. In a February 2021 article the Salt Lake Tribune said 640 Utahns die by suicide annually.

Jeremy Kendrick, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Huntsman Mental Health Institute, and Jack Haden, a licensed clinical social worker and mental health intervention specialist at the University of Utah Counseling Center, both agree mental health has worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The U has resources available to students who are struggling with their mental health. The Counseling Center does short term individual therapy as well as group therapy. The Center also contains the Mindfulness Center which hosts the Feel Better Now: Stress Reducing Workshop to manage anxiety and depression. They also offer crisis counseling Monday through Friday.

The Center also offers Beyond Binaries, a weekly support group for transgender, nonbinary and gender non-conforming students. Beyond Binaries was started in Spring 2020 with help from the LGBT Resource Center as a place for these individuals to find community.

Another resource for students struggling with their mental health is to get accommodations from the Center for Disability & Access (CDA). However, to get accommodations, the students do have to have a diagnosis — for those who have faced difficulties with insurance or no insurance at all, this may pose an obstacle to getting the help they need.

The CDA offers a variety of services for students who qualify, including exam accommodations, priority registration, reduced course loads, service and emotional support animals and more. They also offer accommodations such as academic advising, peer mentoring, and accessible paths of travel.

To obtain these services and accommodations, a student must complete an intake appointment, provide proper documentation, have a case management review and then a follow-up meeting.

According to the CDA’s Student Handbook, it is the student’s responsibility to pay all costs associated with getting diagnosed and providing documentation of a disability. For some students, paying to visit a psychiatrist is out of the question, especially if they are also paying for college.

Kendrick said students who cannot afford to get a diagnosis should utilize resources such as the Counseling Center or reach out to their primary care physicians who can make referrals to see a psychiatrist if needed.

“An accurate diagnosis is the way to get accurate treatment,” Kendrick said.

With the increase of social media sites like TikTok bringing awareness to mental health issues, there has also been an increase in self-diagnosis. Haden compared the dangers of self-diagnosing to going on WebMD and said it might be more helpful to go to a professional.

“Self-diagnosis has occurred because of the de-stigmatization of mental health,” Kendrick said.

He continued on to talk about how this is a good thing because it makes mental health a more common topic of conversation rather than remaining a taboo. He also said there are both positive and negative aspects of self-diagnosing.

He said self-diagnosing can be risky because people are not always getting the help they need. It also can marginalize the people who have extremely limiting disorders. However, according to Kendrick, it can be good if it’s impacting a student’s ability to attend school or do work effectively. In this case, a self-diagnosis can lead to getting professional help as a next step.

Haden said diagnosis in general can be helpful for some and not for others. For example, a diagnosis can be useful when a person needs medications to manage their diagnosis, someone copes better with having a label, or in certain cases of trans healthcare.

“[A] problem with self-diagnosis [is] it might limit your access to treatment since you’re not working with a professional,” Kendrick said. “Diagnosis is only half of treatment.”

He said only with the whole treatment can people start feeling whole themselves.

Self-awareness in regards to mental health is helpful in trying to find necessary resources, Kendrick said. However, mental health issues like depression, bipolar disorder and others need specific treatments — without a professional diagnosis, people may have biases when thinking about themselves.

Haden said obtaining mental health care does not need to be dependent on being in crisis — everyone has mental health.

“It’s always nice to get mental health help,” Haden said.

Some of the people whose mental health took the hardest hit during the pandemic were the transgender, nonbinary and gender non-conforming individuals who may have been forced into spaces where they were not able to be out as their true selves or had to live in a hostile environment where they were not accepted for who they are.

According to a January 2021 longitudinal study about the mental health of transgender and gender nonconforming individuals during the pandemic, the pandemic exacerbated existing mental health disparities for these people. Additionally, reduced LGBTQ and transgender and nonbinary support was associated with increased psychological distress during the pandemic.

Living in unsafe home environments will take a toll on one’s mental health. It is for this reason, Haden said that Beyond Binaries was important during the pandemic because it gave a safe space for those individuals to be themselves and to talk about the situations they were going through.

Because it is intended to be a support group rather than a therapy group, participants are encouraged to make connections, which was something lacking during the pandemic’s quarantine period.

For some, the pandemic provided an opportunity to be alone with themselves and their thoughts for the first time in a while. Haden said people were able to do some deep thinking about their gender identity in between baking sourdough or binge-watching “Tiger King.”

Haden said Beyond Binaries is so important during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic because for non-cisgendered people, finding community is important. They can often feel excluded and worry about being excluded, so having a place where they can speak safely and freely is so important, he said. According to Haden, trans mental healthcare took a nosedive during the pandemic and Beyond Binaries gave them a community and a safe space during this time.

At Beyond Binaries, Haden said that challenging topics are often discussed. From moments of trans joy to describing negativity experienced by trans individuals, the support group serves as a supportive and judgement-free space to discuss life stressors. Additionally, because the space is currently online, Haden said people can expect to meet all of his cats.

While the U does offer different mental health resources, students still report Spring 2021 as being the hardest semester of the pandemic.

“I felt more adjusted to self-isolation and the routines of the pandemic, though isolation and the passive anxiety of living in a pandemic definitely still took their toll,” said Morgan Ralston, a senior studying English. “It was just more of a background pressure on my mood than the complete disruption of the previous summer and fall.”

Haden said services of the Center were highly utilized in the spring. Typically the beginning of the semester is higher in interest but he hopes students know they can reach out to get resources at any time.

Kendrick said social interactions are very important to students right now, although most of them take place on a virtual platform. This lack of interpersonal relations may lead students to seek out advice from mental health professionals.

According to Kendrick, the effects of isolation in Salt Lake City increased anxiety during 2020 and the beginning of 2021. Generally, people were scared for their health and the future, but people who already had anxiety noticed it was heightened. However for people with social anxiety, it actually helped to be home. With many classes at the U being back in person and more public events opening up, those with social anxiety are now struggling and may need more mental health resources.

In terms of this school year, the Center is prepared for whatever comes their way. Haden said telemental health is the primary mode of service. They are actively adjusting daily as things change because the most important thing is ensuring students have access to mental health resources.

For the psychiatry branch in general, Kendrick said access to mental health services was actually not impacted because of the pandemic because of the move to virtual visits. Psychiatrists and therapists were actually able to see more patients and catch up on patients they may not have been able to see normally. However, Kendrick said in order to maintain this they need more people who are interested in the mental health field as a career.

For mental health help, pandemic related or otherwise, the Counseling Center can help. For previously diagnosed mental health conditions, the CDA can help in figuring out what accommodations can be set up on a case-by-case basis. Non-cisgendered people who are interested in learning more about or joining Beyond Binaries can reach out to Haden via email at [email protected].

 

[email protected]hronicle.com

@LizzySeitzNews