Mental health experts are warning that the prolonged isolation of pandemic lockdowns has prompted many Americans to adopt a coping strategy frequently used by drug and alcohol abusers.
It’s called “learned helplessness,” a term coined in the 1960s to describe an inability to deal with sudden, catastrophic change.
“With learned helplessness, you just give up, stop doing things that might be helpful to you, not seek help or comfort from others,” said clinical psychologist Thomas Plante, a member of the American Psychological Association. “This isolation and depression results in more escape behaviors like drug use and further mood troubles like anxiety and depression. At some point, you feel that being dead would be better than living.”
As the nation returns to normal after three years of pandemic restrictions, mental health professionals see learned helplessness in persons who refuse to leave their homes or resume in-person meetings and work. A surfeit of calls to the national suicide hotline also has sparked concerns about a widespread inability to cope with unexpected adversity.
Therapists say patients who fear returning to old behaviors have substituted alcohol, drugs, social media or video games for face-to-face relationships. As sufferers numb painful feelings with self-isolating behaviors, they feel worse over time.
“Not leaving the house during the pandemic … just furthers their preconceived view that something bad is always going to happen,” said JohnNeiska Williams, a licensed therapist at Grow Therapy, a New York-based counseling network. “Connection is significant to the human species, and most of that is done through human interaction, which is not as likely working from home alone.”
According to counselors, learned helplessness frequently starts when so-called helicopter parents teach young children to cope with stress by self-isolating and waiting for parental figures to rescue them — a pattern that, ironically, leaves them unable to change their habits for the better.
“An example is the adult elephant who won’t move when tied to a tree that she could easily uproot or break free from because she was chained to the tree as a baby,” said Rebecca Fischer of Ark Behavioral Health, a network of addiction treatment facilities. “They tried and failed so many times that now they no longer try, even though circumstances have changed.”
Mr. Plante, who teaches at Santa Clara University in California, said one anonymous patient’s mental health crumbled after the man started working from home during pandemic lockdowns.
“Initially, he loved the freedom of remote work,” Mr. Plante said. “But over time, he stopped taking care of himself in terms of hygiene, lost his social self-confidence, just tried to avoid people and got anxious and depressed.”
‘Helpless and powerless’
The number of adults abusing drugs or considering suicide increased significantly during the first two years of COVID lockdowns, according to recent federal data. Experts say the trend hit minorities and young people the hardest as they struggled with limited resources to face a succession of quarantine-related problems — including school closures, racial justice clashes, crime surges and inflation.
“Pandemics have major cascading impacts that permeate every aspect of our lives and the resiliency of individuals to return to their pre-pandemic life is not going to be synchronous,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease specialist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last week that suicide was the second-leading cause of death among people ages 10 to 34 in 2021 — the most recent year of data available — after unintentional injuries like drug overdoses and motor vehicle accidents.
That came after the CDC reported in December that a rise in overdose deaths from opioids in 2021 pushed U.S. life expectancy to its lowest level since 1996: 76.4 years. Nearly 300 people died every day from opioid addictions in 2021, with the highest rates coming among adults aged 35-44, according to federal data.
“Individuals may feel helpless and powerless to control their environment or situations, often because of experiencing uncontrollable and unpredictable events,” CDC spokesperson Scott Pauley told The Washington Times. “It is important to remember that the pandemic has had a significant impact on everyone’s lives, and it may take time for people to feel comfortable returning to their pre-pandemic routines.”
Operators of the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline — the new three-digit dialing code that replaced the old National Suicide Prevention Lifeline last summer — say calls have surged in the pandemic era from adults struggling with suicidal thoughts and addictions.
“I think it’s learned helplessness. People used to call and be depressed, but could still motivate themselves to do things,” said Timothy Jansen, CEO of Community Crisis Services Inc., a 988 call center in Hyattsville, Maryland. “Since the pandemic, they can’t get out of bed, find a job, clean the house or pick up their kid at school.”
According to the most recent data from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the 988 Lifeline answered 404,194 calls, chats and texts in February. That’s an increase of 161,678 contacts from the same month last year — before 988 replaced the old 10-digit number.
Call volume in February increased year-over-year by 48%. The number of online chats rose by 247% and the number of text messages shot up a staggering 1,599% over the same period.
The number and intensity of calls started spiking during pandemic lockdowns and have only snowballed since the new three-digit code kicked in, added Mr. Jansen, a licensed social worker whose call center is one of seven handling 988 contacts for Maryland.
He said he urges callers to find excuses to leave the house for work, exercise, social activities and errands as the pandemic fades.
“People were more isolated, less connected and spent more time wrapping themselves up in the difficulty,” said Mr. Jansen, who has worked at the Hyattsville center for more than 26 years. “You used to have to get your butt out of your home, go to work and interact with people, but now you can just sit on your butt at home.”
For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.
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