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OUTBREAK OF ANXIETY - Mass violence sets people on edge


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When Cliff Hedges was hired as director of security for the Eastern States Exposition late last year, he added a new element to the fair. For the first time in the century-plus history of the annual “Big E,” Hedges required ticketholders to pass through a metal detector.

Hedges, a retired FBI agent, and former longtime Texas police officer said it was the 2017 Las Vegas shooting that convinced him the metal detectors were necessary at the Springfield, Mass., expo. On Oct. 1, 2017, Stephen Paddock shot and killed 58 people and wounded 422 from a hotel room high above the strip.

“That specific incident caused me to really push hard on my end to kind of put together a risk assessment (for Big E President Eugene J. Cassidy) and the board, to sell the idea we need to do this,” Hedges said. “We’re a large fair. A lot of people come here with their families. It’s critical while they’re here they feel safe and secure and (we) preserve the feel of a family fair.”

A variety of national studies show people are more anxious and on edge these days. (See related story). Whether it’s the mass shootings, a 24/7 news stream, the opioid epidemic, caregiver stress or a growing fear that they are unable to keep up, anxiety is increasing in all demographics and across all age groups “It has become an epidemic of anxiety and it’s pervasive,” said Gary M. Steck, CEO of Wellmore, a Waterbury-based nonprofit behavioral health organization. “The world is not a more dangerous place than it was 50, 70, 100 or 200 years ago, but it sure seems like it to people.”

Nearly one in three adults (32%) say they are more anxious than they were last year; more than four in ten (43%) say they are about as anxious as they were last year; and about a quarter (24%) say they are less anxious than last year, according to a poll by the American Psychiatric Association. A similar poll found that a third of adults say they feel they “cannot go anywhere without worrying about being a victim of a mass shooting.” People aren’t walking into Wellmore and reporting specific fears they’ll be the victim of a mass shooting, Steck said.

But they can’t sleep. They’re on edge. Some of them don’t want to leave the house. Some kids don’t want to get on the school bus. Some no longer find interest or joy in activities that once elicited those feelings. “I think there’s a generalized increase in social anxiety that’s occurring,” said Dr. Joseph Podolski, vice president of behavioral health and chair of psychiatry at Waterbury Hospital. “And anxiety is a continuum. When you get really anxious, people get paranoid. When people get paranoid, that’s when people act on things.” Actions differ depending on the person, he said. An introvert, for example, might retreat further from society, while an extrovert might express rage on social media or join a public protest. They’ll sometimes act, he said, by avoiding public places or tourist destinations out of fear of attack.

“I think people who never used to think about that think about that now when they’re going into a baseball game or going into a place with a lot of people, whether it’s upfront in their consciousness or way back,” Podolski said. “I think it’s the reality of the mindset we have.” FEEDING THAT REALITY is an always-on, always-connected information stream that mental health professionals say keeps such tragedies in our thoughts, through news alerts, viral social media posts, and other public notices. “You’re always connected, constantly inundated with information,” Podolski said. “Sometimes it’s information overload for people who are already fragile.” And sometimes, Steck said, it’s the information itself creating and feeding that fragility. “It’s every day and every moment thing,” Steck said. “Fear grows, so people exaggerate fear.”

For instance, he said, he recently vacationed at Cape Cod and noticed many people with a smartphone app called “Sharktivity” that uses a social platform to track shark sightings. Another example, he said, is receiving a tornado alert on a cellphone when one is actually miles away from the actual storm. “There are an awful lot of anxious adults fearful something bad is going to happen,” he said. “It has become the new normal for our culture to think that the worst is going to happen or there’s something bad around the corner when, in fact, that’s not how life actually is.”

THE APA POLL SHOWS levels of anxiety among adults remaining “high” year over year. A national poll conducted by the organization earlier this year found nearly one in three adults said they are more anxious than they were last year. The poll asked participants to rate their anxiety in regard to safety, finances, health, relationships, and politics.

The poll found younger adults — those ages 18 to 34 — to be more anxious than older adults, with 40% reporting they are “extremely anxious” about keeping their family safe or paying bills. They also reported being more anxious than older adults about their relationships with family, friends, and co-workers.

The results of the May poll represent the second year in a row that adults reported elevated feelings of anxiety. “The poll results reinforce the fact that basic needs, such as personal safety or finances, have a large impact on a person’s mental well-being,” APA President Altha Stewart, M.D. said in a prepared statement. “We urge anyone who is struggling with anxiety, regardless of the reason, to seek treatment.”

PERVASIVE SOCIAL anxiety is still treated on an individual basis. In some cases, Steck said, medication is prescribed. But the key, he said, is to counsel people to change their perceptions and then get to the core cause of the anxiety.

The most popular treatment, he said, is called “cognitive behavioral therapy,” (CBT), a counseling strategy that helps anxious patients change distorted thoughts (such as those of threat and danger), and the negative behaviors they might prompt. Wellmore and Waterbury Hospital promote and teach mindfulness.

But for CBT or any other mental health therapy to be effective, a person needs to seek it — something most are unwilling to do, Steck said. “A large percentage of people who are suffering do not get the care that they need,” he said, adding as much as 80% of those suffering mental illness don’t receive treatment. He pointed to a “stigma or perception of shame” as the reason why people don’t reach out. They do sometimes reach out, however, to the clergy, he said.

The Rev. James Sullivan, the rector of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Waterbury, said while people have not explicitly expressed fears connected to mass shootings, he’s noticed an increase in anxiety in his flock. “With so many acts of violence in recent years, some people do indeed live in increased fear, anxiety and nervousness and need to express these fears, talk about it and express it. Others less so,” he said. “Overall, however, the experience of violence to another human person deeply saddens the heart of the vast majority of people and leads many to prayer and a deep desire for a better and more virtuous world.”

To seek treatment at Wellmore’s Adult Outpatient Services, visit the office at 402 East Main St., Waterbury, or call 203755-1143.

To seek treatment at Wellmore’s Child & Adolescent Outpatient Services, visit the office at 141 East Main Street, 2nd floor, Waterbury, or call 203-756-7287 or 1-855WELLMOR (935-5667).

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