Why doctors say there's been an increase in mental health illness linked to COVID-19

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Doctors in the Houston area said the unknowns of the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing has led to an increase in mental health patients over the last couple of months.

"Depression and anxiety are one of the more common presenting symptoms for a primary care practice, but for acute depression and anxiety, maybe I usually would see one or two [patients] a week, now I'm seeing two or three a day," said Dr. Joshua Septimus, an internal medicine doctor at Houston Methodist Hospital.

Septimus said he has started seeing patients who haven't experienced mental health issues before COVID-19 and are now seeking help for anxiety and depression because of social isolation.

"Then there's the very straightforward people coming in who can't sleep, can't stop crying, either not eating or eating all the wrong foods, over exercising, over drinking," he said.

Septimus said it's important for people to try to socially connect in safe ways if possible, like making a phone call to a loved one.

But when exactly should you seek professional help?

"If you had cancer and you knew you had cancer, you wouldn't wait until you had stage four to seek treatment. I want you to treat your brain health and your mental health conditions the exact same way. If you have anxiety and you're feeling overwhelmed, seek help now instead of waiting until you're in a crisis situation," said Dr. Elizabeth McIngvale, director of the McLean OCD Institute at Houston.

McIngvale said you should seek help right away if your mental health starts interfering with your ability to function.

If it's a loved one who is struggling, she said it's important to stay supportive.

"Instead of 'Here's what you need to do, I see your problems' and 'You need to fix them', it should be much more about 'How can I support you in the midst of your struggle?,'" she said.

Texans experiencing anxiety, stress and emotional changes can reach a mental health professional at 833-986-1919.

Crisis Text Line is a free resource available 24/7 for those in crisis to communicate with a trained crisis counselor by texting TX to 741741.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for individuals dealing with suicidal thoughts can be reached at 800-273-8255.

For resources to help protect mental health during the coronavirus pandemic, visit www.afsp.org/mental-health-and-covid-19.

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