Long-term impact of the pandemic on the mental health of Mississippi residents

Editor’s Note: The following article talks about suicide and may be difficult for some readers. If you are having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or SMS 741-741 or the Department of Mental Health at 1-877-210-8513.

Brandon native Joe Turner took the stage on a cruise ship near Guam just a month before the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic began sweeping the United States. However, amidst the performances, his thoughts focused on his next scheduled performance. “The biggest contract of my career was on February 25th (2020),” said the professional magician, musician and motivational speaker.

“I thought I had to go home – ‘I can’t miss this.'”

By March, however, Turner was looking through a blank schedule as his entire calendar disappeared for the remainder of the year. At the time, companies were scrambling to cancel events to contain the widespread pandemic.

A magician in a black suit holding up cards
Brandon, Miss., a native of Joe Turner who now works as a professional magician, musician and motivational speaker in the greater Atlanta area, had been struggling with depression prior to the pandemic. As COVID-19 turned his live performances upside down and his show’s live streaming had grown old, he began contemplating suicide. He is now getting professional help to help him through this particularly difficult time. Photo courtesy of Joe Turner

During the same period, Dillion Swindle of Oxford, Miss., had just landed his dream promotion and moved to Louisiana just as COVID-19 hit the nation. “I’ve wanted this job for five years,” Swindle, who became a systems manager at AT&T in Louisiana, said in an interview.

Within six months he was back in Oxford, processing home mortgage escrow accounts while working from home so he could watch for signs of COVID-19 in his aging parents. “Just in case someone gets sick, I didn’t have to be gone eight hours,” Swindle said.

The multiple effects of COVID and the “new normal” it has created caused both men’s mental health to deteriorate dramatically, with Turner even contemplating suicide.

“pile up” stress.

Ridgeland-based life coach and life coach Karen Bonner said the pandemic has negatively impacted many people’s mental health in part because it has shown that modern society has at least some degree of fragility. “No matter what anyone said – no matter what the doctors said, no matter what the government said, no matter what anyone said – it was out of our control,” Bonner said in an interview.

A July 2020 Kaiser Family Foundation health survey found that many US adults report specific adverse effects on their mental health and well-being, as well as increases in alcohol use and other substance abuse, and worsening chronic conditions due to worry and stress about the coronavirus reported. A November 2020 Census Bureau pulse survey found that 43% of adults reported suffering from anxiety or depression.

Globally, the World Health Organization released a scientific brief in March that found that anxiety and depression in people have increased by 25% due to the pandemic.

A long-haired man looks out of a window framed by blue curtains
“Sometimes I feel an overwhelming anxiety — I mean, turn on the news for five minutes,” said Dillon Swindle of Oxford, Mississippi, of the impact of the pandemic. Photo by Bruce Newman/MCIR

“The pandemic may lead to another national crisis related to its behavioral health impact, with people experiencing new or worsening behavioral health symptoms or conditions,” the Government Accountability Office warned in December 2021. The document noted, that those with prior behavioral disorders, such as Turner and Swindle, were at higher risk of experiencing increasing mental health complications.

Turner said he was facing what he called an “existential crisis of confidence.”

“I was in a whirlwind investing 20+ years in this type of work and wondering if it would even exist a year from now,” he said.

Doctors diagnosed Swindle with anxiety and prescribed medication. “Sometimes I feel an overwhelming fear,” he said. “I mean, turn on the news for five minutes.”

Bonner described the increase in psychological stressors during the pandemic period as an “accumulation”.

“I’ve seen the anxiety and stress that COVID has put people and families through the stresses of everyday life, and then there’s COVID,” Bonner said. “Very few people have gone through a pandemic before – the last one we had was a hundred years ago.”

Bonner said the cumulative impact of the pandemic was reflected in the changes in how people work, school their children, take care of their parents and each other, and spend their free time, among other things. In her practice as a life coach, she has observed societal changes that unsettle people, on top of the prospects of contracting COVID-19 in the first place.

“The isolation has left its mark on us,” said Bonner.

“Angry at God”

Swindle turned to his wife Jessica, family and others for support over his anxiety and explained that changing jobs had helped him a lot with his pre-existing attention deficit disorder. “Working independently is good for me,” he says. “I can stay at home and still take care of myself.”

To compensate for the canceled shows previously on his schedule, Turner buckled up to provide livestreamed magic shows and piano performances and built a studio in his office for work. The New York Times mentioned his show in a May 2020 article and listed his digital appearances in the Sunday edition’s featured events. However, the allure of working online soon faded as 2020 gave way to 2021 with almost no end in sight to the pandemic.

“I was tired of sitting in this office and doing shows,” Turner said. “I was super angry at God. I was mad.”

A man in a chair poses with a dog on his lap and a woman standing behind him with one hand on the chair
Dillon Swindle, seated outside his home in Oxford, Mississippi, on May 16, 2022, credits his wife Jessica (standing) for helping him manage his anxiety during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Bruce Newman/MCIR

Turner had gone through bouts of depression before, but those occasions had never become deadly like those he experienced in the midst of the December 2020 pandemic almost did. When he began to believe that suicide would be a way out of his problems, he knew he needed professional help.

He began interviewing therapists with an iron rule in mind: if someone suggested reading the book of Job from the Bible, they hung up. “Don’t try to push me out of this,” Turner said. “I didn’t want to be Job’d or Promise Keeper’d.”

Both men noted that they have made significant progress in overcoming their mental health challenges brought on by the pandemic.

Turner began to control what he let into his mental space during the pandemic — no more talk radio, no TV news, no more arguments with strangers on social media. He began attending a Bible study on emotional growing up, read books that helped him improve his speaking and magic skills, and stopped following the sporting events of his beloved Mississippi State University Bulldogs so closely.

“I intentionally curated my media consumption,” Turner said. “I’ve tried to focus on taking away things that are hindering my progress.”

Swindle said he could start weaning off Prozac and Adderall in January 2021 and be done with it in July. Instead, he started using CBD products, buying CBD “gummies” from shops in Oxford. Over time, Swindle’s perspective on his problems changed.

“One of the hardest things about being an adult is accepting that there are things you can’t control,” Swindle said.

During the stormy heights of the pandemic, many of Bonner’s clients came to her with questions about how to restructure their lives once the number of cases had fallen.

“People are feeling a lot of pressure to go back to the way they worked in 2018 and 2019,” she said. “People are starting to ask, ‘Do I really want to live like this now?'”

The Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting published the original version of this article. Sign up for their newsletter here. Email Julie Whitehead [email protected].

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