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Daytime – From the emergency room to the grocery store, stress levels rise with inflation

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 has noticed that in recent weeks more patients have used the emergency room instead of primary care for health issues, 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 treatment myself if I needed it,” Dayton said in a phone interview. “I can’t go to the emergency room for just anything. It has 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 goods and services. Dayton said many mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, can be linked to the cumulative stresses of the past three years, including current inflation.

Dayton said she also noticed that patients had become more aggressive towards medical workers. She said this growing aggression was “getting scary” for nurses. Nurses are especially suspicious after the shooting at a hospital in Tulsa, Okla., earlier this 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 going on. We’ve had the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve got economic changes. We’ve got police killing African Americans. People don’t feel safe.”

Neurological response

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

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

“Growing up and seeing the world change over the last few years, it’s just one hit after another,” Stephanie Pacut, in her thirties, said Tuesday afternoon on her way to work at New London Ink, a store in tattoo at 90 Bank St. “The overall impact of stress is definitely acceptable. You can feel it.”

Some communities may feel the pressures of inflation more than others. Cazenave teaches a course on the social construction of happiness at UConn. He said that although the United States is a wealthy country, it ranks low on the happiness scale.

“Positive emotions, feeling good, feeling safe, feeling secure, are not evenly distributed in society,” Cazenave said. “People at the bottom of the nation’s totem pole are flooded with negative emotions and trying to survive, let alone struggle.”

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 that it’s natural for people of all ages to notice stress around them and that most people, including children, have “an empathy and a willingness to interact with those in distress.”

Grahn said it was difficult to predict the long-term impacts of “protracted stressors,” including inflation, on young people. She thinks young people today have experienced stress at a more sudden and alarming rate than is natural.

With mental health issues on the rise at all ages, Pacut believes there isn’t enough support for people with mental stress because the healthcare system is “broken”.

Former emergency medical services worker Kathleen Poulin, who chatted with a reporter as she sat in New London’s Parade Plaza enjoying the sunshine on Tuesday morning, said she was worried about the lack of Connecticut 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 for mental health help,” she said. “It shouldn’t be so hard for people to get the help they need.”

Although medical systems are strained to deal with the increase in mental health cases, many people suffering from stress are finding ways to cope.

Benjamin Wrighten, who works as a seafood manager at ShopRite, is making more “compromises” and “substitutes” to provide the basics for his family. Interviewed during a recent shift at the store, he said making decisions about how to stretch your dollar can sometimes be stressful.

“Inflation means trying to figure out where you’re going to put your next dollar, trying to skip all the clothes and the nice things just for the simplest things,” he said. “But we make it work. We just find a way to make it work.”