As COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage on, never before has the topic of mental health been more relevant. Many experts report increasing rates of mental health problems triggered by the anxiety, joblessness, death, isolation, and uncertainty that accompany the virus. Some even predict that this is only the beginning of a lasting mental health crisis.
COVID-19 and Mental Health
While the national conversation is rightly focused on the importance of social distancing and controlling the spread of the virus, an invisible fight is emerging for many at home. The recent poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation revealed that nearly half of the people in the US said that the pandemic is adversely affecting their mental health. According to Voa News, a US multimedia agency, it surveyed 1,226 Americans from March 25 to 30 and had a margin of error of three percentage points.
The findings showed that 45% of adults said that the crisis has had a negative impact on their mental health and 19% said it has had a “major impact.” From January to April, the number of people screened by Mental Health America (MHA) for anxiety increased by more than 70%, while the number screened for depression rose by 64%. "These numbers represent the tip of an iceberg. Tens of thousands of people are already experiencing serious mental health problems because of the pandemic, many of them young,” Paul Gionfriddo, president and CEO of MHA, said.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) also reported that the demand for mental health resources has skyrocketed since the beginning of the pandemic. They documented 41% more calls and emails to their hotline from March 1 to April 23 compared to the same period in 2019. Dawn Brown, director of community engagement at NAMI, said that 75% of callers need support and reassurance during this time.
"HelpLine callers mentioning COVID-19 are most frequently experiencing serious anxiety about their physical and emotional health. Some callers are experiencing panic attacks when reaching us, and our volunteers help them work through the panic until they're able to talk about the issue,” Brown said.
Another survey by McKinsey & Company revealed that 35% of respondents said they were both depressed and anxious, while 42% of those who either had a job reduction or loss said they were both depressed and anxious. The findings showed that 1 out of 5 reported taking prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons; 1 out of 4 respondents reported "binge drinking," and 1 out of 7 reported using illicit drugs.
The Rise of Suicide Concerns
This isn't the first time a mental health crisis has emerged in the wake of a tragedy or national emergency. Previous reports showed that the US saw high rates of depression, anxiety and alcohol abuse, and a 13% increase in suicides following the global financial crisis in 2007 and the accompanying Great Recession. In 2008 alone, over 46,000 lives were lost to suicides attributed to unemployment and income inequality.
Experts warn a crisis in mental health problems is on the horizon:; this includes depression, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicide. A recent analysis conducted by the national public health group Well Being Trust warns that the pandemic could significantly increase so-called "deaths of despair,” which are mainly driven by the growing unemployment crisis, economic downturns, and stress caused by isolation and lack of a definitive end date for the crisis.
"Unless we get comprehensive federal, state, and local resources behind improving access to high-quality mental health treatments and community supports, I worry we're likely to see things get far worse when it comes to substance misuse and suicide," Well Being Trust's chief strategy officer Dr. Benjamin F. Miller said.
According to EcoWatch, a leading environmental news site engaging millions of concerned individuals every month, the fear and uncertainty caused by the pandemic are likely to lead to as many as 75,000 deaths due to drug or alcohol misuse and suicide. Recent reports show that many communities across the US have seen an increase in overdoses. In Jacksonville, Florida, a 20% increase in overdose emergency calls was reported last March. Similar spikes in Columbus, Ohio, and in at least four counties in New York State were also seen.
"I think we need to consider the role that social isolation coupled with non-stop reporting on the pandemic may have on the feelings of desperation and hopelessness among those struggling with substance abuse. Amidst the current crisis, we need to remember that substance abuse existed long before COVID-19, and it will likely remain long after we have wiped out the virus,” James Kennedy Jr., US attorney for the Western District of New York, said in a statement.
Of all people, experts said that healthcare providers will be particularly vulnerable to the mental health impact of the crisis. A recent study from Wuhan, China reported that about half of healthcare workers reported experiencing increased depression and/or anxiety symptoms. In an earlier study published in 2007, clinicians reported higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and psychological distress following the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic.
At the same time, Italy has reported multiple deaths by suicide among nurses. Carlo Palermo, head of Italy’s hospital doctors’ union, tearfully told reporters last April about the severe psychological trauma caused by the pandemic, saying, “It’s an indescribable condition of stress. Unbearable.”
Previous studies have shown that medical professionals have the highest suicide rate of any profession, with an average of one physician dying by suicide every day. Physicians are also likely to die by suicide compared to the rest of the population. Experts worry that this may worsen due to the pandemic. According to MedPage Today, an online site that provides free continuing education to healthcare professionals in addition to the latest news, an article published in JAMA Psychiatry warned that the stress, trauma, and isolation associated with the coronavirus pandemic may create a “perfect storm” among medical professionals.
“The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, and efforts to contain it, represent a unique threat, and we must recognize the pandemic that will quickly follow it — that of mental and behavioral illness — and implement the steps needed to mitigate it,” Dr. Sandro Galea from the Boston University School of Public Health and his colleagues wrote.