Editor’s note: The following article talks about suicide and may be difficult for some readers. If you are having thoughts about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text 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 COVID-19 pandemic began to sweep through the United States in 2020. Amid performances, however, his mind focused on his next scheduled appearance. “The biggest contract of my career was on February 25, (2020),” the professional magician, musician and motivational speaker said.
“I was thinking that I needed to get home—’I can’t miss that.’”
By March, though, Turner was left looking over an empty schedule, as his entire calendar for the rest of the year disappeared. By then, companies were racing to cancel events to stem the widespread pandemic.
During the same period, Dillion Swindle of Oxford, Miss., had just gotten his dream promotion and relocated to Louisiana when COVID-19 smacked the nation. “I’d been wanting this job for five years,” Swindle, who had become an AT&T systems manager in Louisiana, said in an interview.
Within six months he was back in Oxford, processing escrow accounts for home mortgages while working from home so that he could watch out for signs of COVID-19 in his aging parents. “Just in case someone got sick, I didn’t need to be eight hours away,” Swindle said.
The multifaceted effects of COVID and the “new normal” it created led both men’s mental health to dramatically descend, with Turner even contemplating suicide.
‘Piling On’ Stress
Ridgeland-based life coach and counselor Karen Bonner said the pandemic negatively affected many people’s mental health in part because it exposed that modern society has at least a 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 Kaiser Family Foundation Health Tracking Poll from July 2020 found many adults in the U.S. reporting specific negative effects on their mental health and wellbeing, as well as increases in alcohol consumption and other substance abuse and worsening chronic conditions from worry and stress over the coronavirus. A Census Bureau pulse survey in November 2020 found that 43% of adults said they suffered from anxiety or depression.
Globally, the World Health Organization released a scientific brief in March finding that anxiety and depression in individuals increased by 25% because of the pandemic.
“The pandemic is potentially driving another national crisis related to its effects on behavioral health, with people experiencing new or exacerbated behavioral health symptoms or conditions,” the Government Accountability Office warned in December 2021. The document noted that those with previous behavioral-health conditions, like Turner and Swindle, had a higher risk of experiencing increased mental-health complications.
Turner said he faced what he termed an “existential crisis of confidence.”
“I was in a whirlwind of investing over 20 years into this kind of work and wondering if it would even exist in a year,” he said.
Physicians diagnosed Swindle with anxiety and put him on medication. “I feel an overwhelming dread at times,” he said. “I mean, turn on the news for five minutes.”
Bonner described the pandemic-era increase in mental stressors as a “pile-on.”
“I saw the anxiety and stress that COVID brought to people and families from everyday stresses, then COVID on top of that,” Bonner said. “Very few people have been through a pandemic before—the last one we had was a hundred years ago.”
Bonner said the cumulative effects of the pandemic are evident in the changes to how people work, school their children, care for their parents and each other, and spend their leisure time, among other facets of life. In her practice as a life coach, she has observed societal shifts unnerving people, in addition to the prospects of contracting COVID-19 in the first place.
“The isolation has left its mark on us,” Bonner said.
‘Angry at God’
Swindle turned to his wife Jessica, his family and others for support through his anxiety, and explained that his job change helped him a great deal with his pre-existing attention deficit disorder. “Working on my own is good for me,” he noted. “I can stay home and still provide.”
To compensate for the canceled shows previously on his schedule, Turner buckled down to provide livestream magic shows and piano performances, building a studio in his office for the work. The New York Times mentioned his show in a May 2020 article and listed his digital performances in the Sunday edition’s recommended events. The allure of online work, however, soon wore off as 2020 gave way to 2021 with nearly no end to the pandemic in sight.
“I had had enough of sitting in this office doing shows,” Turner said. “I was super angry at God. I was pissed off.”
Turner had suffered through periods of depression before, but those occasions had never turned lethal, as the one he experienced amid the pandemic almost did in December 2020. When he began to feel that suicide would be a way out of his problems, he then knew that he needed professional help.
He started interviewing therapists with one ironclad rule in his mind: If anyone suggested reading the Book of Job in the Bible, he was hanging up. “Don’t try to Jesus me out of this,” Turner said. “I didn’t want to be Job’d or Promise Keeper’d.”
Both men noted they made significant strides in overcoming their mental-health challenges through the pandemic.
Turner started controlling what he let into his mental space during the pandemic—no talk radio, no TV news, no more engaging strangers in arguments over social media. He began attending a Bible study about growing up emotionally, read books that helped him enhance his speaking and magic skills, and stopped following his beloved Mississippi State University Bulldogs sports events so intensely.
“I have intentionally curated my media consumption,” Turner said. “I’ve tried to focus on taking away things that hinder my progress.”
Swindle said he was able to start weaning himself off of Prozac and Adderall in January 2021 and finished in July. He instead began using CBD products, buying CBD “gummies” from stores in Oxford. Over time, Swindle’s perspective regarding his problems shifted.
“One of the hardest things about being an adult is accepting there are things you can’t control,” Swindle said.
During the arching heights of the pandemic, many of Bonner’s clients came to her with questions about how to restructure their lives once case numbers have wound down.
“People feel a lot of pressure to go back to the way they were working in 2018 and 2019,” she said. “People are beginning to say, ‘Do I really want to live that way now?’”
The Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting published the original version of this article. Sign up for their newsletter here. Email Julie Whitehead at [email protected].