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    Thursday, August 18, 2022

    From the emergency room to the grocery store, stress levels rising along with inflation

    Sherri Dayton, a registered nurse, president of the Backus Federation of Nurses and divisional vice president of AFT of Connecticut Health Care labor union, on Thursday, June 23, 2022, stands outside the Backus Hospital Emergency Care Center in Plainfield. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

    Emergency rooms have seen a recent increase in drug overdoses, suicide attempts and patients with depression and anxiety, according to Sherri Dayton, an emergency room nurse and president of the Backus Hospital Federation of Nurses.

    She's noticed that in recent weeks, more patients have been using the emergency room instead of primary care for health concerns, including mental health issues. She said many patients cannot afford primary care, especially with rising inflation, and know the emergency room cannot turn patients away.

    "I can't even afford to go get care myself if I needed to," Dayton said in a phone interview. "I can't go to the emergency room for just anything. It needs to be a real emergency."

    The inflation rate hit 8.6% in May, a 40-year-high, and Americans are paying more for gas, groceries and most other products and services. Dayton said many mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, can be linked to the stacked stresses of the past three years, including today's inflation.

    Dayton said she's also noticed that patients have become more aggressive toward medical workers. She said this rising aggression is "getting scary" for the nurses. Nurses are especially wary after the hospital shooting in Tulsa, Okla., at the beginning of the month, where a gunman killed four people, including two doctors.

    "It's like the heat has turned up," Noël Cazenave, a sociology professor at the University of Connecticut, said in a phone interview. "There's too much happening. We've had the COVID-19 pandemic. We have economic changes. We have police killing African Americans. People do not feel safe."

    Neurological response

    Stacked stressors over time can increase risk for anxiety and depression disorders, according to Ruth Grahn, Connecticut College psychology professor. She said the brain has neurological connectors that are stimulated during stress to respond to threats. These connectors are stimulated for both physical threats and emotional ones. If neurological connectors are stimulated too intensely or for prolonged periods of time, likelihood of stress and anxiety disorders increase.

    The "prolonged stressors" of the COVID-19 pandemic and inflation have engaged these neurological connectors for an extreme amount of time and that has caused an anxiety uptick in all age groups, Grahn said.

    "Growing up and seeing the world change over the last few years, it's just kind of one hit after another," Stephanie Pacut, who is in her 30s, said Tuesday afternoon on her way to work at New London Ink, a tattoo shop at 90 Bank St. "The global impact of stress is definitely palatable. You can feel it."

    Some communities can feel the stresses of inflation more than others. Cazenave teaches a class on the social construction of happiness at UConn. He said that although the United States is an affluent country, it ranks low on the happiness scale.

    "Positive emotions, feeling good, feeling safe, feeling secure, are not distributed equally through society," Cazenave said. "People at the bottom of the nation's totem pole are flooded with negative emotions and trying to survive, let alone strive."

    As families try to provide enough resources for their children to thrive, children often feel the stress from their parents and caregivers, Grahn said. She noted it is natural for people at any age to notice stress surrounding them, and that most people, including children, have an "empathy and drive to interact with people who are distressed."

    Grahn said it's hard to predict long-term impacts of "prolonged stressors," including inflation, on younger people. She thinks younger people today have experienced stress at a more sudden and alarming rate than what is natural.

    With an uptick of mental health issues in all ages, Pacut thinks there is not enough support for people with mental stresses because the health care system is "broken."

    Former emergency medical services worker Kathleen Poulin, who chatted with a reporter while sitting on New London's Parade Plaza enjoying the sun Tuesday morning, said she worries about Connecticut's lack of mental health resources. She said the state needs to "step up" and open new mental health facilities as inflation and other stressors worsen.

    "I had to drive patients in the ambulance to other states to get them mental health help," she said. "It shouldn't be as difficult for people to acquire the help they need."

    Although medical systems are strained to accommodate increases in mental health cases, many people experiencing stress are finding ways to cope.

    Benjamin Wrighten, who works as the Seafood Manager at ShopRite, is making more "compromises" and "substitutes" to afford the basics for his family. Interviewed during a recent shift at the store, he said making the decisions of how to stretch his dollar can be stressful at times.

    "Inflation means trying to find where you are going to put your next dollar, trying to skip all the clothes and the finer things just for the more simple things," he said. "But we make it work. We just find a way to make it work."

    Sherri Dayton, a registered nurse, president of the Backus Federation of Nurses and divisional vice president of AFT of Connecticut Health Care labor union, on Thursday, June 23, 2022, stands outside the Backus Hospital Emergency Care Center in Plainfield. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

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