A year after COVID-19, college student still feels effects; WakeMed doctor urges focus on mental health

North Carolina

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — A year after COVID-19 left her sick in bed for three months, Lacey Mathis is grateful to be back in college, spending time with friends, and smiling, under her mask, but she still deals with the lingering effects of the virus.

“Right after my virus, I remember everyone was like ‘Oh, she’s better. She’s fine, everything’s fine,’ and I didn’t feel fine,” recalled Mathis, who is from Sanford.

In March 2020, Mathis became the first person diagnosed with COVID-19 in Lee County.

“Even to this day, I’m still slowly getting my taste and smell back,” she noted, adding, “I’ve definitely struggled with anxiety and depression, and they think it’s because of COVID getting into my brain.”

WakeMed’s Dr. Christopher Chao wants to raise awareness of the pandemic’s effect on mental health.

“There needs to be a serious look at the emotional toll and the mental health toll because it is a huge toll,” he said.

Chao says people with chronic illnesses often suffer from depression. COVID-19 adds the element of uncertainty because there is still so much doctors don’t know about the virus.

“We want to give answers. We want to help people, and unfortunately in this situation, we don’t have enough evidence or enough data to know how to help,” he explained.

Chao said the lack of definitive answers can be stressful.

“You are effectively telling the patient, ‘I can’t find anything wrong with you,’ but they know, and you know there’s something going on,” Chao added. “That is devastating to a patient. It is also stressful and devastating to a health care professional.”

He says caring for mental and emotional health is vital, not just for COVID-19 patients, but for all of us coping with the stresses of the pandemic.

“The emotional toll goes beyond COVID. It extends to all aspects of this pandemic, the lockdowns, the stay-at-home orders, the economic toll. It’s all there,” he said.

Mathis sought counseling to help in her recovery.

“I desperately needed some help from a mental health professional, and it was definitely helpful for me. I think it made a huge difference,” she said. “It’s been a really long journey to get back to even close to who I was before.”

The William and Mary student is thankful for the doctors, therapist, friends, and family who’ve helped her through the past year. She hopes those still struggling will find the help they need.

“Just keep fighting,” she urged. “There is an end in sight — it may take a really long time, but you will get back to normal.”

If you feel overwhelmed by the stress of the pandemic or experience suicidal thoughts, there is always someone waiting to listen at the suicide prevention lifeline. Call 1-800-273-8255 any time of day or night. The call is free. You can also call 911.

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