Motivational speaker Melissa Hopely Rice notices when a kid in the classroom sneezes.
“In my head, I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, he might have coronavirus,’” she said. From there, Rice said, she starts spiraling with disturbing thoughts:
Well, he touched that desk and I touched that desk five minutes ago. So now do I have the coronavirus? Is it on my hands? Do I need to stop speaking and get hand sanitizer?
Wait, I feel something in my throat. ... There’s a bubbling in my throat. Is that part of the coronavirus? Is it now going down to my chest?
I’m going to die right away. I have two kids at home. What if I go home and give it to my son who has asthma and then he dies?
These intrusive thoughts race through her mind as she struggles to push them away and continue with her job as a mental-health motivational speaker for the nonprofit Michael’s Giving Hand. This has happened before, after mass school shootings, after the 9/11 attacks. But the rapid spread of the new coronavirus, the constant barrage of bad news, and the frightening lack of hard information about the virus has made it particularly challenging.
One of the troubling ripple effects of the coronavirus is how it has worsened the mental health of many people, experts say, including those dealing with OCD, general anxiety, and depression.
“The coronavirus has changed my OCD,” Rice said. “We don’t have control of the situation, but with positive coping tools we will get through this."
Mental-health issues can be exacerbated by the kind of uncertainty happening across the world right now, said Melissa Harrison, cofounder of the Center for Hope and Health, an outpatient treatment center in Ardmore that specializes in anxiety and eating disorders.
The fact that so much is unknown is especially triggering.
“When people come into treatment they learn how to flex that muscle, to tolerate the uncertainty of things,” Harrison said. “Right now, that’s definitely getting tested.”
Some people may have contamination-related OCD and already wash their hands every 10 minutes. Others could have tendencies related to cleaning and hoarding. People could experience increased ritual thoughts.
Counselors commonly encourage social activity as a way to combat depression. But now officials are canceling gatherings and encouraging people to stay inside. Those dealing with depression may now develop anxiety related to a fear of being isolated, and that isolation could worsen their condition.
“It would not be protocol for me to tell someone to not leave their house and to wash her hands all the time, but now I have to reinforce that,” Harrison said. “But I had a client who wanted to shower four times a day. That’s not a CDC protocol.”
For Jennifer Mendez, 36, the warnings from public health officials make her feel as if she is doing what they recommend, and could go off her OCD medication.
Every 5 to 10 minutes she feels the need to wash her hands, scrubbing them until they bleed. In her mind, she was already doing what health officials are instructing others to do: Clean your home. Stock up on food. Wash your hands more.
“It almost makes me feel like I don’t have a problem,” Mendez said. “I lived like this before the coronavirus.”
People struggling with depression may view the directives to stay inside and avoid socialization as “a blessing in disguise,” said Hider Shaaban, a psychotherapist and doctoral student in clinical psychology at La Salle University.
But social interaction can make a huge improvement in someone’s mood and Shaaban hopes anyone struggling with mental health, whether that is something such as depression or OCD, maintains some sort of routine in addition to staying connected with friends and family.
“I don’t really want people to be sedentary the whole time," ” Shaaban said. “That would be the antithesis of what we are trying to do in treatment."
Ayoola Ogunyimika, 20, is immunocompromised. She has sickle-cell anemia and is worried about how the coronavirus could affect her.
She’s been seeing a therapist three to four times a month for depression, anxiety, and PTSD at Temple University, where she is an English major on a premed track. When the coronavirus forced classes to be moved online the rest of the semester, and she had to move back home to Willingboro. She thinks she can manage this extra stress through creative activities like poetry, art, dance, or singing. Still, she can no longer talk to her therapist, who is not licensed in New Jersey.
“It’s triggering for my mental health,” Ogunyimika said. “I have a lot of racing thoughts and depending on how bad it is, for me trying to self-soothe, I always like shake my leg or do a repetitive action to calm myself.”
Brandi DeAngelo’s 16-year-old daughter, Rylee, has contamination OCD, meaning her greatest fear is getting sick. She was in therapy all summer and is finally on an upswing, but DeAngelo said the coronavirus threatens her progress.
“Right now we’re just on a fine line trying not to make it that big of a deal and encourage her not to go to places without triggering [her] fears,"DeAngelo said. “We’re just kind of like treading water."
Rylee doesn’t want to fall back on her compulsions. She has been trying to follow her therapist’s advice when she feels herself getting anxious about the coronavirus.
Her therapist would ask her: “What is the probability that you will get sick from that and if you do, what happens?" She tries to rationalize that by staying at home and washing her hands, she won’t get the virus and won’t pass it along to others.
“I’ll always have these thoughts,” Rylee said. She hopes she can manage it during this time. The possibility of regressing scares her because she used to wash her hands about 20 times a day.
“It was really bad. They got like all cut up,” she said. “I don’t want to get back to that.”
Inquirer staff writer Bethany Ao and Aneri Pattani of Spotlight PA contributed to this article.