Anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and other mental health challenges have been forced to take on perhaps their strongest opponent yet — an infectious disease outbreak that's turned New Jersey on its head for 11 months and counting.

Factors that can make these conditions erupt or heighten drastically include the loss of a loved one, less access to family and friends, more downtime and no real structure to the day. Sound familiar?

"It was just me and the thoughts, and I had nothing to distract me from it. That was really, really hard," Essex County resident Renee Audrey told Townsquare Media News.

The 20-year-old is "constantly in recovery" from OCD and anxiety that's been a part of her life since well before the coronavirus pandemic took hold of the Garden State.

Pre-pandemic, following years of therapy, she was "cruising along" as a student at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania, Audrey said. She was still seeing a therapist once a week, and thought that'd be sufficient in order to keep any mental illness in check.

"It was like reality hit me in the face and I had to completely reevaluate how I can function on my own," Audrey said of the health emergency's arrival in March 2020.

Patrick Mellin, 35, of Bernardsville, who lives with anxiety and bipolar disorder, runs his own weekly support group through a local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. He's been "stable" for a number of years, but experienced a "large uptick of anxiety" from the pandemic-forced isolation, and the threat of falling ill with COVID-19.

"I was more anxious all the time — hyper aware, you could call it," Mellin said, noting his years of experience with mental health challenges may have better prepared him for picking up on the pandemic's personal impact. "I look out for things like lower motivation, not being able to get out of bed."

Between January and September 2020, more than 315,000 people took an online anxiety screening through Mental Health America. That's 93% higher than the number of screenings taken through all of 2019. Numbers for depression screenings were 62% higher during the first nine months of 2020, compared to the full 12 months prior.

"Isolation itself can really increase anxiety and depression, so we've seen a lot of new people," said Charity Truong, a clinical psychologist with Stress & Anxiety Services of New Jersey, located in East Brunswick.

The pandemic, she added, comes with a wide variety of potential triggers that would obviously impact those already struggling with a disorder.

"For people with depression or anxiety or OCD, not being able to go out and engage with others has been extremely difficult," Truong said. "For people with health anxiety and illness-related OCD, this has been absolutely terrifying."

Rahway resident Strawberry Gallagher, 31, who was first diagnosed with OCD at age 14 and was diagnosed more recently with bipolar disorder, has held on to her job during the pandemic but also needs to work hard to keep herself busy, as New Jerseyans continue to be advised to limit interaction with others, and businesses close their doors earlier than usual.

"When I found things getting quiet last year, I threw myself into a new hobby. I ended up reading 70 books by the end of last year," Gallaher said. "I feel like if I don't concentrate on a goal or an activity, I feel like that's when it can get bad."

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