A surprising health-related problem connected to the COVID-19 pandemic is the high rate of mental health issues. Social isolation, financial worries and fears of getting sick with COVID-19 have either underscored depression and anxiety that already exist, or, thanks to the pandemic, brought them on. A recent study in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report showed that symptoms of depression and anxiety in the United States increased between April and June 2020, compared to the same period in 2019. Depression symptoms were 4 times higher and anxiety symptoms were 3 times higher in 2020 versus 2019.
One bonus amid the media reports and discussions about these increases: People who lived with these disorders and fears before the pandemic are finding that others understand what they are experiencing, because the pandemic has put them in the same boat, as it were. This experience is helping destigmatize and validate mental health issues, said Amber Hewett, PhD, a psychologist specializing in child and adolescent mental health, and the director of Health Equity at Families USA.
Pre-Pandemic vs Now
That said, those who had mental health issues before the pandemic are finding their conditions worsening, said Anne Thode, LCSW, a New York-based therapist. Stress is a trigger for people with mental health issues, so they don’t function as well. On top of that, fewer healthy ways exist to cope during the pandemic, like in-person yoga classes. This decreases the outlet options for those struggling with mental health issues.
Mental Health, the Media and WFH
If you’re following the news, you’ve been bombarded with COVID-19 coverage. “When watching certain upsetting images on TV, you can be affected by it,” Ms. Thode said. Some of her clients can no longer watch television, listen to their favorite radio programs or engage in social media because doing so makes them feel anxious, she explained.
Michelle Riba, MD, a professor and psychiatrist at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Depression Center, asks her patients how much media they consume, when they’re watching or listening, and which programs. She tries to help them find a balance so they can stay informed but not let the media contribute to their anxiety. “There’s a line between trying to be educated and knowing what’s going on,” and watching so much that it’s not helpful, she said.
With work emails coming in the day and night, people working at home for the first time may have difficulty separating work and personal time, which is also stressful. Turning off the computer and disabling phone notifications can help with that separation. So can opting for screen-free time on nights and weekends. Playing a game, reading a book or doing a jigsaw puzzle may help you relax and get your mind off your stressors. In the MMWR study, 74.9% of young adults ages 18 to 24, and 51.9% of those ages 25 to 44, reported having mental health issues this spring.
The Impact on People of Color
As the physical aspects of COVID-19 disproportionately affect people of color, so do the associated mental health issues. The MMWR study found that 40.9% reported at least one mental health issue this spring, but the figure was 52.1% of Hispanics, 44.2% of Black respondents, 54% of essential workers, and 66% of unpaid adult caregivers. The last two categories include a higher percentage of people of color.
Children of color are also more likely to be impacted than their white peers, as a result of their lived experiences and what they’ve seen during the pandemic, Dr. Hewett said. That’s because of the racial inequities involved with the disease. “We’re seeing more infection and death among Black, indigenous and people of color, and the children are more likely to know people who have been impacted,” Dr. Hewett said. Younger children in particular may be confused by what they’re seeing.
Children experience mental health issues in different ways than adults, added Dr. Riba. The difficulties include changed routines, remote schooling, fewer summer programs and social distancing. “Change is difficult for some young kids, and it’s hard for children and adolescents, maybe more so than for other age groups,” Dr. Riba pointd out.
Parents should help their kids identify words to describe their feelings and keep as much routine as possible. Said Dr. Hewett: “We can’t underemphasize the disruptions in their lives, and the role of their parents, caregivers and educators in demonstrating resilience in a disruptive and unpredictable time.”
The pandemic has amplified people’s reactions to everyday situations. Some people are losing access to things that once gave them pleasure or connection, like in-personal socializing and exercise classes. Mental health experts said they’re seeing more alcohol and substance abuse, and unhealthy eating. Even with COVID-19 overload, it’s possible sometimes to tune it out. That might mean leaving your phone in another room at night, taking a socially distanced walk with a friend, trying an exercise class on YouTube, or attending your town’s outdoor or drive-in movie night. Understanding that things have changed is difficult, but finding new and healthy ways to cope can help.
The Color and Gender of COVID: Essential Workers, Not Disposable People, https://www.thinkglobalhealth.org/article/color-and-gender-covid-essential-workers-not-disposable-people
Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, June 24–30, 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6932a1.htm?s_cid=mm6932a1_x#suggestedcitation
‘Heroes or hostages?’: Communities of color bear the burden of essential work in coronavirus crisis, https://abcnews.go.com/Business/heroes-hostages-communities-color-bear-burden-essential-work/story?id=70662472
The Female Face of Family Caregiving, https://www.nationalpartnership.org/our-work/resources/economic-justice/female-face-family-caregiving.pdf