When COVID-19 was first reported in the United States, many were optimistic that it would come and go quickly enough. But after a few weeks, reality set in and took a toll, not only on our physical selves but on our collective mental health as well. Over the past year, a lot of people have struggled with feelings of isolation, anxiety, depression and despair due to the global pandemic. Many have lost loved ones, missed funerals and births and other milestones, and dealt with emotions that some may not have even experienced before. What has been the overall mental health impact on our nation’s people in the past year?
According to a recent survey by Yahoo/YouGov, 35 percent of adults in the U.S. report that their mental health has worsened since the start of the pandemic. And an even larger percentage (44 percent) report an increase in depression in the past year, with 48 percent stating that their anxiety symptoms also increased.
"The mental health impacts of COVID-19 are just beginning to be understood fully," says Catherine Burns, a Vermont-based psychologist and clinical supervisor for COVID Support Vermont. "As time passes, we are developing a clearer picture that increasingly highlights experiences of stress, anxiety and depression across the globe."
Burns, who is also the quality director at Vermont Care Partners, says that it's not only the physical and mental health and economic impacts directly related to the pandemic that are affecting people, but also "societal events of unrest, concerns for the future of our country and other significant global environmental concerns." And among those people most affected by these impacts are persons of color and women, as well as those with preexisting mental health, substance use or medical conditions.
The Yahoo/YouGov survey revealed similar statistics, with 39 percent of females reporting a worsening in their overall mental health (compared with 31 percent of males) and 52 percent of females also reporting more anxiety (as opposed to 42 percent of males). Burns points to a study published in Frontiers that identified some of the reasons why women have been so negatively affected, including the fact that there are more women occupying service and frontline health worker positions, which have exposed them to COVID-19 at higher rates, as well as increases in their home workloads due to having to care for family members in the home while in quarantine.
"Further endorsed by these authors was an increase in domestic violence, abuse of children and an increase in social isolation and subsequent decrease in emotional support, which contributes to increased stress, anxiety, depression and posttraumatic stress disorder," adds Burns.
This theory "states that individuals with minority identities not only experience everyday general stressors, they also experience additional stressors that are unique to their minority identities. This theory can be helpful in understanding why we are seeing women, racial and ethnic minorities, as well as the LGBTQ+ community, reporting higher levels of depression, anxiety and stress," says Lira de la Rosa. "In particular, the pandemic has negatively impacted the lives of many African American/Black and Latinx individuals, as well as other underrepresented groups."
Related: Survey reveals pandemic hits moms the hardest
Indeed, 59 percent of Hispanic participants in the Yahoo/YouGov survey reported worse mental health conditions — more than any other minority in the survey (23 percent of Black participants reported worse mental health overall).
"We [in the Hispanic community] tend to be really close," says Brandie Carlos, therapist and owner of Therapy for Latinx. "I even joke that parties are a love language in our community, and to not have access to a sense of belonging has been really hard. On top of that, we live with huge disparities when it comes to wealth, medical care and human rights."
Carlos says she's witnessed numerous announcements within her own community in Los Angeles about Hispanic individuals lost to COVID-19, most of whom were essential workers who could not stay home.
Lira de la Rosa says COVID-19 has only exacerbated the health disparities that already existed pre-pandemic. "These disparities are often seen in lack of access to health care, preventative services, as well as discrimination and racism negatively impacting the physical and mental health well-being of the Latinx community," he explains.
The Yahoo/YouGov survey revealed another interesting statistic: The age group that reported feeling most sad or depressed (at 50 percent), as well as experiencing overall worsening mental health (47 percent), was the 18-29 demographic. While this age group is often seen as resilient, there's no doubt that this major shift has taken a toll on the nation's youth.
"Developmentally, emerging and young adults are constructing their futures, economically, emotionally, socially and vocationally, only to have their plans thwarted and stalled. It is not surprising that the Gen Z groups are experiencing the uncertainty of the pandemic more profoundly and thus report more related stress, anxiety and depression," says Burns.
"I can't imagine finally graduating from high school or starting college for the first time through a pandemic. There are so many rituals we have as a society that mark the beginning of adulthood, and this generation didn't have access to those things. It's valid that they feel disappointed, frustrated and robbed of an experience," says Carlos.
This same demographic reported highest in thoughts about quitting their job on the whole (41 percent) as well as for reasons of parental stress (62 percent).
"Parents have picked up a new job throughout the pandemic: teaching and helping their children with school and engaging in remote learning. This has been incredibly challenging for those who are also working from home," says Stephanie Rojas, a licensed mental health counselor with Emergent Mental Health Services.
There are additional factors that have affected parents (and likely their desire to quit their jobs), as noted by Kimberly Malloy, a licensed marriage and family therapist who also experienced COVID-19 herself.
"Parents have had to watch and manage not only their own anxiety from their job, their relationships and community, but have had to be diligent on watching over their children's mental health. The grief that parents are carrying was multiplied as they watched, sometimes helplessly, their children navigate the loss of their own community, sports activities and school," says Malloy. "The back-and-forth of concentrating on work, being interrupted and having to go back to the task often causes tasks to take longer to complete. We found that we are not so great at constant multitasking without suffering some consequences."
Adds Rojas, "It is important to ensure that parents receive support from others as much as they can. This might mean reaching out to school support staff and being in contact with their child's teacher or principal."
Speaking of reaching out for help, these experts offer a number of self-care tips for those who are dealing with heightened mental health issues as the pandemic goes on. Rojas recommends taking walks, journaling and cooking, among other easy go-to's.
"Connect with someone outside of your home every day. While it is not the same to talk with someone on the phone or over a virtual connection, making a social connection each and every day is an important way to offset the negative physical and mental health effects of loneliness," says Burns.
"I ... encourage people to take a compassionate approach with themselves and with others. ... It is OK to acknowledge that you're a human being and are going through a difficult time," says Lira de la Rosa. "I also strongly encourage people to use professional mental health services. Individual therapy or group therapy services are available for those that need additional support ... as well as to learn healthier coping skills during the pandemic."
On a more practical level, Carlos recommends that those who are dealing with financial issues, which can increase stress, seek out all the resources available to them, including unemployment, pandemic assistance, PPP loans and food stamps.
"Past the practical, be mindful of what you are surrounding yourself with, both on social media and in real life," says Carlos. "Figure out what brings you relief and what reenergizes you, and tap into those things throughout the week."
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