COVID-19 Pandemic Creates Perfect Storm of Mental Illness

Issues Worsening Across the Nation in Midst of Pandemic

With more than 100,000 Americans dead, it’s understandable that so much media attention has focused on the health effects of the novel coronavirus, as well as prevention methods to keep people safe.

But as new data continues to emerge, it’s becoming clearer that alongside the growing death toll, another crisis is brewing that could prove tragic — a deterioration of Americans’ mental health.

Even before the pandemic, an estimated one in five American adults had a mental health condition, Addiction, anxiety, or suicidal thoughts are just a few examples of mental health concerns. As new data reveals, many of those issues are getting even worse as the nation and world continue to deal with the pandemic.

Anxiety

A recent analysis by PsyDPrograms.org showed a more than 30% increase between January and March in the number of people whose self-screenings through Mental Health America indicated they had severe anxiety.

There’s no shortage of anxiety-inducing developments in the U.S., from the virus itself and the resulting death toll to massive layoffs throughout corporate America (nearly 41 million people had sought unemployment as of the end of May) to a lack of casual daily human contact. In addition to the rise in severe anxiety screenings, Google search data indicates that people are looking for help — search volume for “online therapy” has roughly doubled since last year.

Including anxiety and other mental health conditions, about one in four Idaho adults have a mental health condition, the highest rate among the states and the District of Columbia, with the national average rate sitting at more than 19 percent. Here’s a look at the top and bottom five states for mental health conditions:

Top 5

  • Idaho: 23.6%
  • Oregon: 23.6%
  • Utah: 23.5%
  • West Virginia: 22.9%
  • Washington: 22.8%

Bottom 5

  • New Jersey: 16.2%
  • Hawaii: 16.3%
  • Texas: 16.3%
  • Illinois: 16.8%
  • Maryland: 16.9%

Addiction

Before the pandemic, according to the PsyDPrograms.org analysis, an average of 8.2 percent of Americans had a substance use disorder, including alcoholism and drug addiction. But with alcohol sales rising as millions of people have lost their jobs and been under stay-home orders, the pandemic could contribute to an increase in this rate.

Liquor and grocery store sales of wine rose 27.6 percent early in the pandemic, with liquor sales going up 26.4 percent and beer sales jumping 14 percent. Online alcohol sales also surged, jumping 42 percent over sales figures reported during this time in 2019.

While the national average rate for adults dealing with substance abuse is just over 8 percent, in several states the rate is much higher, while a few have a considerably lower rate. Here’s a look at which states have it best and worst when it comes to substance abuse:

Top 5

  • District of Columbia: 11.6%
  • Massachusetts: 10.1%
  • Vermont: 10%
  • Oregon: 9.8%
  • South Dakota: 9.6%

Bottom 5

  • Georgia: 6.3%
  • Texas: 6.4%
  • North Carolina: 6.5%
  • New Jersey: 6.5%
  • West Virginia: 6.5%

Suicide

The most tragic mental health impact of COVID-19 isn’t hard to see. From a huge increase in calls to a suicide hotline to the suicide death of a frontline emergency doctor, it’s clear the toll is too great to bear for many people.

In figures reported before the pandemic, an average of about 4.6 percent of adults reported having suicidal thoughts, with that rate spiking to 6 percent in Utah. But since the pandemic, the national Disaster Distress Hotline recorded an eye-popping 891% increase in calls between March 2019 and this March.

And stories about tragic outcomes for many people connected with the pandemic have been reported. In one case, a 49-year-old emergency physician treating coronavirus patients took her own life, with the woman’s sister telling NBC News after the doctor’s death, “She said it was like Armageddon. She said, ‘There are so many sick people everywhere.'”

What Can You Do?

Almost everyone has been affected by the virus and the toll it has taken on the world. For individuals whose jobs revolve around helping others, whether as frontline medical workers or others in care or support jobs, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a series of guidelines for healthcare professionals, including:

  • Communicating with coworkers about job stress, including talking honestly and candidly about how the pandemic is affecting work.
  • Access mental health resources that may be available within the workplace.
  • Reminding yourself that everyone is impacted by this unprecedented situation and that struggling to cope with it is not a failure or sign of weakness.
  • Where possible, maintain routines, even if it’s as simple as taking a walk at the same time every day.
  • Get as much sleep as is feasible depending on your work schedule and personal obligations.
  • When not working, limit your consumption of pandemic news when you feel yourself becoming overwhelmed by it.
  • Consider beginning meditation, yoga or other mindfulness techniques.

Conclusion

Nobody really knows how and when, or even if, life will return to normal after the threat of the virus has been neutralized. But as data continues to emerge, it’s clear that many people of a variety of backgrounds are suffering emotionally and mentally right alongside this medical crisis. 

Ann Steele, PhD, is Editor-In-Chief of PsydPrograms.org. Ann has training as a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst who has worked with adults, couples, adolescents, and preteens throughout San Diego County.

Additional References

PsyDPrograms.org, The States with the Highest (and Lowest) Incidence of Mental Health Conditions. (2020.) Retrieved from https://psydprograms.org/incidence-of-mental-health-conditions/

Marin Independent Journal, Americans are drinking their way through the coronavirus crisis. (2020.) Retrieved from https://www.marinij.com/2020/04/12/americans-are-drinking-their-way-through-the-coronavirus-crisis/

CNN.com, A crisis mental-health hotline has seen an 891% spike in calls. (2020.) Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/10/us/disaster-hotline-call-increase-wellness-trnd/index.html

Fortune.com, Over 40 million Americans have filed for unemployment during the pandemic—real jobless rate over 23.9%. (2020.) Retrieved from https://fortune.com/2020/05/28/us-unemployment-rate-numbers-claims-this-week-total-job-losses-may-28-2020-benefits-claims-job-losses/

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), Healthcare Professionals, Preparedness Tools. (2020.) Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/mental-health-healthcare.html

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