Assessing the impact of COVID-19 on mental health

Assessing the Impact of COVID-19 on Mental Health

COVID-19 was perhaps the biggest crisis the global community has faced in generations. The effects of the pandemic have caused repercussions in nearly every facet of life. Over one million people have died from COVID-19 in the U.S. alone, according to USA Facts.

The world’s health and economic systems are still struggling, and countless people have lost their jobs or fallen below the poverty line. Young people spend at least one school year learning from home while missing out on graduations, birthday parties, and socialization opportunities crucial to their development.

Experts are still assessing the full impact of a pandemic on mental health. Still, it is not difficult to understand why many people are experiencing symptoms of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress.

The Pandemic and Mental Health, by the Numbers

To fully understand the impact of a pandemic on mental health, these statistics from Mental Health America may be helpful:

  • Online searches for mental health treatment increased between 2019 and 2021

  • There was a 500% increase in mental health screenings in 2019

  • There was a 103% rise in mental health screenings in 2020

  • The rate of people experiencing anxiety remains higher than pre-COVID-19 rates

  • 79% of people screened for anxiety in 2021 had moderate to severe scores

  • Black Americans had the largest rise in pandemic-related anxiety compared to other races

The number of people reporting thoughts of self-harm and suicide in 2021 was the highest ever recorded since the Mental Health America screening program was launched in 2014.

Youth, Black Americans, and members of marginalized groups, such as the LGBTQ+ community, reported the highest rates of suicide ideation. Most people who used the MHA screening program were most affected by the loneliness and isolation caused by the pandemic.

Mental Health America reports an increasing number of people experiencing psychosis, depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues during the pandemic.

Mental Health, Pandemic, and Stress: The Connection

Even if you have been fortunate enough not to lose a loved one from COVID-19, lose your livelihood, suffer the effects of long periods of isolation, or have lingering physical effects of contracting COVID-19, living through a pandemic is still an extremely stressful situation.

When it encounters stress, the brain almost instantly signals the release of adrenaline and serotonin, which are partly responsible for the “flight or fight” response.

Most people with good mental health can process everyday stress and even episodes of extreme stress without negatively impacting their overall health. However, the ongoing chronic stress caused by the pandemic can create negative changes in brain function that may lead to:

  • Anger and angry outbursts

  • Anxiety

  • Chronic pain

  • Digestive issues

  • Depression

  • Difficulty focusing

  • Difficulty making decisions

  • Headaches

  • Memory problems

  • Muscle pain

  • Sleep issues (insomnia or sleeping too much)

  • Social withdrawal

  • Substance use disorders and other addictive behaviors

A study published by the National Library of Medicine found that chronic stress can cause emotional, behavioral, and cognitive changes, affect your immune system, and decrease your sex drive. The effects of chronic stress create more problems to feel stressed about, compounding the problem.

Fear and Isolation: A Different Kind of Mental Health Pandemic

The country has been facing multiple fears in the last two years. It has often seemed that just when you adjust to a new piece of pandemic information, another reason to worry comes along.

Americans, along with the rest of the world, have dealt with the fear of contracting or dying of COVID-19, the fear someone we care about will die, the fear of job loss, the fear of how the pandemic is affecting children, and fears caused by misinformation.

Social distancing and isolation can also have a negative impact on mental health, creating a kind of mental health pandemic. The loneliness many people experienced during the pandemic is even more profound when combined with fear.

Fear is a type of stress that elicits the same hormonal release as other types of stress. Chronic fear can cause damage to the part of the brain responsible for long-term memory. It can also affect the part of the brain in charge of regulating the fear response, leading to anxiety, lower critical thinking skills, and impulsive behavior. Other potential impacts of chronic fear include:

  • Mental fatigue

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder

  • Obsessive-compulsive thoughts

  • Problems with sleep/wake cycles

  • Anxiety disorders

  • Mood swings

  • Feelings of helplessness

  • Feelings of dissociation

Even before the pandemic, mental health professionals confirmed a link between loneliness and mental health. One study published in PLOS ONE concluded that the occurrence of anxiety and depression was higher among individuals who live alone.

Isolation caused by COVID-19 has made connecting with supportive social and family groups more difficult.

Pandemic isolation has been even more difficult for high-risk groups, such as older adults, marginalized communities like the LGBTQ+ community, and people of color. Many people in these groups struggled to participate fully in the larger community.

The Good News About Pandemic Impact on Mental Health

Not all news about the pandemic’s impact on mental health is terrible. Though rates of substance misuse, depression, anxiety, and other stress-related symptoms rose during the first year, most studies report that the worst impact on mental health occurred during the earlier stages of the pandemic.

Fortunately, concerns that suicide rates related to COVID-19 would rise have been unfounded. According to the CDC, suicide rates in the U.S. have declined during the pandemic.

Caring for Your Mental Health During Pandemics

Though COVID-19 variants continue to spread, there is a sense of relief that the pandemic is slowly ending. The CDC reports that approximately 80% of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated, and the numbers of those contracting the virus continue to slow.

Even so, it is important to continue caring for your mental health. Pandemic isolation and fears continue for many people as they attempt to adjust to a new normal.

The impact of a pandemic on mental health has been far-reaching. As a community, we have learned there are some things we cannot control, but there are still many things you can control. Consider these tips for maintaining your mental health:

  • Spend 20 minutes each day outdoors to help balance hormone levels

  • Develop a mindfulness practice, such as meditation or breathing exercises

  • Prioritize your commitments and say no to unnecessary obligations

  • Connect with friends and family in person if possible

  • Take advantage of technological options if needed

  • Recognize that anxiety is a normal response to a pandemic

  • Use alone time to pursue your personal interests

Being isolated due to the pandemic might be unavoidable, but it could allow you to take up painting, read the classics, or finally learn how to play the piano.

If the impact of a pandemic on mental health has left you feeling fearful, lonely, depressed, or anxious, remember that you’re not alone in this experience. These feelings don’t automatically go away simply because events have changed.

Consider seeing a therapist if you struggle with the pandemic and mental health aspects. The rise of telehealth and online support groups has provided millions of people access to mental care they did not have before the pandemic.

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