Reflecting on COVID-19 One Year Later: How It Has Affected Mental Health

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented effect on how we live and on our physical and mental health. For professionals, it’s important to be aware of how the pandemic is changing the landscape of mental health. The overwhelming trend is an increase in symptoms of mental illness. Therapists and others must be prepared to meet the growing demand for care, a trend expected to continue for some time.

The outbreak of the infection known as COVID-19 officially became a pandemic on March 11, 2020. The World Health Organization (WHO) made the declaration that day due to the speed and severity of the spread of the disease, out of China and into the rest of the world.

Since that day, life has changed, and mental health has declined. Some people have coped well, even thrived, but many more have suffered. Depression, anxiety, substance use, and suicidal thoughts are important issues elevated by the pandemic. While the situation has brought new attention to mental health, many people still struggle with access to proper care.

How Life Has Changed Because of COVID-19

While some people have been more insulated from the pandemic than others, no one has escaped its life-altering effects. Life has changed in significant ways for everyone. Change requires a mental shift, which is challenging for everyone, but even more so for some.

According to the Pew Research Center, the changes people have commonly experienced are more negative than positive:

  • Loss of loved ones due to the illness
  • Ongoing symptoms for people who contracted COVID-19
  • Social isolation and feelings of loneliness
  • Disorienting changes in routine
  • Weight gain and drops in physical activity
  • More polarization in politics
  • Difficulties of working at home
  • Financial losses, including unemployment and food insecurity
  • Children learning at home, remotely

Not everything has been bad. Some people have found silver linings, of course. Being forced to spend time at home has led to closer relationships for some and new, satisfying hobbies for others. Some people felt inspired to walk more and to eat better. Unfortunately, though, more people have suffered negative changes than positive.

Negative Mental Health Changes

The everyday changes brought by the pandemic have impacted mental health across the board. The statistics, surveys, and studies clearly show that the overwhelming effect is negative. A survey supported by the Cleveland Clinic found that 55 percent of respondents experienced the onset of mental health issues after the pandemic began.

Most common, according to the survey, has been stress. This was followed by anxiety, depression, and loneliness. The age group most affected was between 18 and 34 years old. Nearly half of respondents reported feeling extremely overwhelmed by pandemic news.

The Kaiser Family Foundation also found an increase in anxiety and depression. From the first half of 2019 to January 2021, American adults experiencing anxiety, depression, or both increased from 11 percent to 41 percent. This doesn’t necessarily represent diagnoses but does indicate self-reported symptoms. The study also found significant increases in difficulty sleeping, problematic changes in eating habits, and substance use.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on mental health in June of 2020. It found that 40 percent of adults in the U.S. were struggling with substance use or a mental health issue, or both. Anxiety and depression were most common, followed by trauma and stress-related conditions. Serious thoughts about suicide were also on the rise.

Another important indicator of the impact of the pandemic on mental health is the increase in calls to crisis lines. Many organizations have reported significant increases in calls since the beginning of the pandemic in early 2020. Not only do the callers need support, but those volunteering to man the lines have reported that the volume and types of calls have taken a toll on their mental health.

Seeking Mental Health Care During the Pandemic

How, when, and if people seek out help for mental health issues have also shifted thanks to the pandemic. The WHO found that by October 2020, 93 percent of countries experienced disruptions to critical mental health care services. The WHO also reported that these services were already underfunded in most places, resulting in access issues that worsened with the pandemic.

The pandemic has led to an increase in the use of telemedicine, including for mental health services. According to the WHO, most countries have adopted telehealth services, but there are disparities. Eight percent of high-income countries instituted these additional services, while less than half of low-income countries did.

The issue of access is worldwide and mirrored in the U.S. Many states have a shortage of mental health care providers. Some of the states with the highest rates of COVID-19 also have the highest shortages in care. Minorities and low-income individuals have lower access to proper care than other groups, an existing reality worsened by the pandemic.

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Who Is Struggling the Most?

Several studies and surveys of pandemic mental health have found clear patterns. Certain groups of people are struggling more than others. In terms of age, younger adults seem to have had the most serious increases in depression and anxiety.

One reason for this could be the significant disruptions they have experienced in major life events: high school and college, graduations, weddings, and other important transitions. Young people also seem to have more acute distress and anxiety in response to the pandemic, probably because of their use of social media.

Other groups suffering more include those who lost a loved one to COVID-19, low-income people, people of color, and those with mental health issues before the pandemic began. Depression has risen steeply in Asian Americans. This is likely because of the origin of the infection in China and resulting discrimination, racism, and slurs made against people of Asian heritage.

Also suffering more than most are people sick with COVID-19 and the workers caring for them. Health care workers are particularly vulnerable to mental health issues during the pandemic. They have faced fear of contracting the illness, longer work hours, shortage of equipment, and caring for dying patients. Both those who are sick and health care workers have suffered more stress, depression, anxiety, insomnia, anger, frustration, and also stigma.

Are There Any Positives?

So much about the pandemic, particularly for mental health, is grim. But, there is some evidence of positive shifts. One is a growing awareness of the importance of mental health. Another is the increase in telemedicine for mental health issues, which could expand access to treatment to more people.

The pandemic has also pointed out how important social support and connection is for mental health. Without being able to be physically close to certain people, without social outings and engagements, it became clear to many that a strong social life is worth building and maintaining.

Some people found relief in staying home. Some developed new, rewarding hobbies, spent more time with immediate family, and even chose healthier lifestyle habits. These people may have seen improved mental health.

The Pew Research survey pointed out these positives, but unfortunately they represent the minority. Some people were able to find the positives and benefited from some of the pandemic’s imposed changes. Most, however, have struggled.

The takeaway lessons of the pandemic for mental health are numerous, complicated, and ongoing. It will take years to sort through and study the effects. Even so, it is already clear that the pandemic has been the most impactful event in most people’s lifetimes. Mental health care professionals have a challenge ahead, but also a responsibility, to keep learning and to adapt to the changing needs of those seeking help.

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