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What’s the Pandemic Really Doing to Our Mental Health?

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The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a huge strain on our mental health system as people are struggling to cope with the fallout of the pandemic. Rates of pandemic mental health diagnoses spiked dramatically across all demographics, but the rise is particularly prevalent among young people. 

Since March 2020, rates of suicide have exploded, along with an alarming increase in adults struggling with anxiety and depression. 

While we know there’s undoubtedly cause for optimism with the rise of telehealth, mental health, and addiction services, it’s important to acknowledge we’ll pay a long-term price for the impact on our mental health. 

Quick Mental Health Facts 

The CDC partnered with the U.S Census Bureau to conduct a survey (the Household Pulse Survey), which found:

  • 4 in 10 adults report symptoms of anxiety and depression, compared to 1 in 10 pre-pandemic.
  • Between August 2020 and February 2021, the percentage of adults with recent symptoms of anxiety or depression rose from 36.4 percent to 41.5 percent.
  • Those reporting an unmet mental health need during 2020 and 2021 also rose, from 9.2 percent to 11.7 percent.
  • Increases in unmet mental health needs are most prevalent among adults aged 18-29 years old.
  • The spread of disease and pandemic-related deaths is associated with increased fear and grief. 
  • Social restrictions and strict operating limits placed on businesses cause isolation and increased stress due to unemployment and underemployment. 
  • Parents report poor mental health as they struggle to home school their children while juggling work commitments – a whopping 49 percent of mothers now report symptoms of anxiety and depression. 
  • Essential workers are more likely to face mental health challenges, as they are at greater risk of contracting the virus, resulting in increased substance use (from 25 percent versus pre-pandemic rate of 11 percent), suicidal thoughts (from 8 percent to 22 percent), and depressive disorder or anxiety (from 30 percent to 42 percent).
  • COVID disproportionately affects communities of color, with Black and Latino adults being more likely to report anxiety and depression.

Rachel’s Pandemic Story

We’ve heard, read, and listened to many stories of people who personally experienced a deterioration in mental health. That said, we were struck by Rachel’s story. 

About three months after the pandemic hit, Rachel noticed she wasn’t feeling so great. 

“I remember that initially I was a little scared by the pandemic, but enjoyed more time at home and the ability to walk more during the day. But after a few months I started to feel burned out. I was exhausted all the time, my mood was off, and I didn’t really want to leave the house,” she says.

Fortunately, Rachel had good insurance and she was able to get support. “I contacted my provider who connected me with a mental health nurse. She was able to prescribe medication that improved my mood and eased my anxiety.” 

For others, the pandemic has been a more challenging situation. Enter Michelle…

Michelle’s Pandemic Story

Michelle can distinctly recall how her friendships started changing, thanks to the pandemic. 

“I used to hang out with my friend Christine most days. But when the pandemic hit, she changed,” Michelle says. 

“She’d show up to my house wearing a mask and wreaking of marijuana during the day. I was no longer allowed in her home, even when I was wearing a mask. So, we’d sit outside while she drank beer and smoked weed.” 

While Michelle says she knew Christine smoked pot recreationally, she didn’t expect to see her marijuana use increase so significantly.

“Christine would cancel on me every time we planned to hangout, then she’d get angry if I made alternate plans. I started to feel worried about her mood swings and the significant rise in her drug use. She sounded stoned all the time and her behavior became more and more erratic. She’d text me making the most unreasonable demands. It was so bizarre – and it started to affect my mental health. So I had to end the friendship,” explains Michelle.

While Michelle was able to protect her own mental health, she lost a friend in the process. And that means she lost an important source of social support, which is one of the main things getting people through the effects of this lingering pandemic.

What are the Implications of Pandemic Mental Health?

The pandemic will have significant long-term effects for mental health and substance use, as people struggle with isolation, economic uncertainty, and live with the grief of losing loved ones.

It is likely that those struggling with their mental health may continue to have symptoms of depression and anxiety when the pandemic is over, as poor mental health usually outlasts natural disasters and pandemics. Scientists found that psychological distress from the pandemic may continue up to three years after the crisis is over. 

We’re also seeing very clear implications that record numbers of people are turning to substances during the pandemic as a way to cope – a scary thought, considering the United States was already in an opioid crisis. 

The increase in substance use during the pandemic has also led to more instances of substance use disorder. Data shows that during the early months of the pandemic, overdose deaths rose 18 percent. Additionally, as the pandemic increased restrictions on addiction treatment facilities, it’s decreased access to recovery services. The lack of treatment and increased instances of coping with addictive substances creates a perfect storm for overdose deaths to continue rising long after the pandemic fades. 

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