As the United States crosses the grim milestone of 200,000 COVID-19-related deaths, experts are warning about a less visible but worrisome outbreak happening simultaneously: increasingly poor mental health.
More than half of U.S. adults — about 53% — reported that their mental health has been negatively impacted due to worry and stress over the pandemic, according to a nationwide poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
That number is a significant increase from the 32% who reported being similarly affected in March, showing that as the pandemic continues into its seventh month and the death rate continues to climb, so, too, does the toll on people’s mental health.
“Keep in mind that in the U.S., we’ve been kind of in a mental health decline for some years now,” Dr. Rheeda Walker, a professor of psychology at University of Houston and the author of “The Unapologetic Guide to Black Mental Health,” told “Good Morning America.” “National reports that have examined mental health have shown increasing stress and increasing anxiety and people feeling increasingly overwhelmed, and that was pre-coronavirus.”
“Coronavirus kind of puts all of that on steroids because of the level of disruption,” she said. “People’s everyday lives have been disrupted on almost every single level.”
Mental health experts have called the pandemic a kind of “perfect storm” for negatively impacting mental health.
In addition to the fear, grief and anxiety around the virus itself, the pandemic has brought on for many people financial instability, job loss, isolation, uncertainty around school and work and related political disagreements.
Making the pandemic even more distressing from a mental health perspective, experts have said, is both its all-encompassing nature and the uncertainty that lies ahead.
“That’s what makes COVID so unique, that we don’t know who has it, we don’t know how bad it’s going to be or how long it’s going to last, and most importantly, there’s no one that is not directly impacted,” said Dr. Robin Gurwitch, a psychologist and professor at Duke University Medical Center. “There is no place in the world, really, but certainly in the U.S., where you can go and say, ‘I don’t have to worry.'”
Mental health symptoms during the pandemic range from depression and anxiety to substance abuse and thoughts of suicide, data shows.
By late June, just 13% of adults had started or increased alcohol consumption or drug use to help cope with the pandemic, and 11% of all adults, and 25% of those ages 18 to 24, had seriously considered suicide in the past month, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
At an even more basic level, people may see signs of mental health struggles pop up when they can’t sleep or find themselves unmotivated to act or even overwhelmed at the state of the world, according to Walker.
“If someone wakes up and they’ve slept five hours because they had difficulty falling asleep, because they were worried about their job, when they wake up they feel like I’ve got all these things to do, but then in their mind they can’t get themselves in gear, that’s about our mental health, our psychological functioning,” she said. “We need our minds in order to be able to function.”
Two of the populations at highest risk for mental health struggles related to the pandemic may also be the most overlooked when it comes to mental health treatment, according to both Walker and Gurwitch.
Children, who are taking on the weight of a global pandemic, the stress of their parents, the isolation from friends and the uncertainty around schooling, cannot just be thought of as “resilient,” according to Gurwitch, who specializes in child psychology.
“Sometimes people say, ‘Oh, kids are resilient,’ but we can’t just throw that out and assume that this is not an issue,” she said. “I really do think that we need to consider children’s mental health right now more than ever.”
“One of the things that’s gone down is the resources available for children’s mental health, and the other issue is that caregivers and parents of our children are also at risk,” Gurwitch added. “We know that one of the most protective factors for children’s mental health is a positive adult in their lives.”
People of color are facing both a disproportionate impact due to the coronavirus and the upheaval surrounding instances of racial injustice and police brutality across the country.
African Americans, in particular, are already 10% more likely to experience serious psychological distress than other races, according to the Health and Human Services’ Office of Minority Health. Experts agree that these alarming statistics will only increase without elevated access to coping mechanisms.
“The health problems have been persistent and because we’ve known about them, I think there’s more anger and frustration now,” said Walker, adding that the pandemic has also stripped away much of the social net for people. “With those [networks] diminished now, I do think we can see increased mental health challenges for African Americans and for other communities.”
In addition to the health crisis and the crisis around racial injustices, Americans are also coping simultaneously with natural disasters, from hurricanes to wildfires.
With that in mind, both Walker and Gurwitch said they and other mental health experts are preparing for a mental health crisis that will last long after the virus is contained.
“What we know about disasters and large-scale traumatic events in general, and a public health emergency is certainly a large-scale traumatic event, is that the mental health issues are often much larger and more long lasting,” said Gurwitch. “We need to be thinking about how we’re going to address those currently, but also tomorrow and next week and next year.”
“All these things are happening that by themselves are an increased risk for mental health problems,” she added. “Put them together and stir and you’ve got a recipe for huge spikes in mental health.”
If you are in crisis or know someone in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741. You can reach Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 (U.S.) or 877-330-6366 (Canada) and The Trevor Project at 866-488-7386.