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COVID-19’s Ripple Effect on Mental Health and Addiction

Society must prioritize mental health now to avoid more painful outcomes later.

Getty Images/Juanmonino
Woman struggles with her mental health.
Source: Getty Images/Juanmonino

Typically, the holiday season means end-of-the-year corporate parties, family gatherings, and festive get-togethers with friends. But the holidays in 2020 will look very different. As the coronavirus numbers increase, schools are returning to remote learning, offices are sending staff back to work from home, and the fear of another lockdown is on everyone’s mind. People are being encouraged to stick to their “COVID pods” and embrace more intimate gatherings, with virtual parties sprinkled in.

2020 has presented a host of challenges, and there is a grave concern for what the mental health effects on our society are going to look like in a post-COVID era.

Substance Use Disorders

One outcome of coronavirus-related stress is the accelerated use of drugs and alcohol. Reports released throughout the year have highlighted how the pandemic has intensified America’s substance use so far. Between February and March of this year, there was a 34 percent increase in prescriptions for benzodiazepines, a class of potentially habit-forming drugs, such as Xanax, used to treat anxiety.

Alcohol consumption in the face of mounting concerns has likewise climbed and will most likely continue post-pandemic. A study by RTI International discovered that between February and April of 2020, survey participants’ alcohol intake increased in terms of their average number of drinks per day as well as rates of excessive drinking and binge drinking.

Last but not least, the opioid crisis continues to burden Americans and shows no signs of slowing down during the coronavirus outbreak. This year, at least 40 states have seen an uptick in the number of opioid overdose fatalities, which were already occurring at alarming rates prior to the pandemic.

Left unchecked, these trends are likely to continue years from now, and lead to an even more dramatic increase in the number of people who struggle with drug addiction and alcoholism.

OCD and Other Mood Disorders

Because the mental health crisis created by the current coronavirus outbreak will persist for years post-pandemic, society can also expect to see an increase in anxiety disorders, especially Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

Fear of catching a deadly virus through other people’s germs has exacerbated OCD symptoms in those who have been previously diagnosed with the illness. A Journal of Anxiety Disorders study of 394 individuals with OCD revealed that 72 percent of participants experienced heightened symptoms during the COVID-19 crisis. The virus has additionally created OCD symptoms in many who have other preexisting anxiety diagnoses or are prone to suffering from stress.

The increased isolation of quarantines and lockdowns has likewise had an impact on rising rates of depression and agoraphobia, an anxiety disorder that causes an aversion to certain surroundings.

Mental Health and Younger People

COVID-19’s damage to our collective psyche has not been limited to adults. This is also uncharted territory for children and adolescents, who may have trouble processing the events of the past year. A CDC report found that mental health-related visits to emergency departments between April and October 2020 increased 24 percent among children aged 5 to 11 and 31 percent among children between the ages of 12 and 17.

Similarly, it is predicted that children will experience a greater onset of anxiety disorders and worsening of social anxiety disorders specifically when they are able to gather in person again. There are children who have not been allowed to see their friends since the pandemic started, and even younger ones who have yet to meet another child or human outside of their quarantine bubble.

Insufficient Funding for Behavioral Health Services

The current healthcare system does not treat mental health needs the same as medical needs; there is pay disparity, coverage disparity, and more restrictions on the authorization of services for mental health than medical needs.

Mental health costs largely rest on poorly funded state insurance and on privately insured or self-funded plans that can make up their own rules with very little oversight for what is best for their policyholders versus the bottom line. When the pandemic started, some insurance providers waived co-pays and allowed for all services to be telehealth. Co-pays have now been reinstated in many cases, and restrictions on telehealth services are currently being put in place by private insurance companies.

It will be difficult to treat what is expected to be an overwhelming mental health crisis post-pandemic when the cost of any decent insurance continues to go up for the members on an annual basis and reimbursement rates for providers continue to go down. With the impending mental health crisis we face, it is worrying that some states have already made cutbacks in their mental health departments.

The pandemic has been an unprecedented time for all. Post-pandemic will also be unprecedented, and our healthcare system, as it stands now, is not adequately prepared to deal with the enduring mental health effects.

LinkedIn Image Credit: tommaso79/Shutterstock


Barbosa, C., Cowell, A.J., and Dowd, W.N. (2020). Alcohol consumption in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. Journal of Addiction Medicine. DOI: 10.1097/adm.0000000000000767.

Jelinek, L., Moritz, S., Miegel, F., & Voderholzer, U. (2020). Obsessive-compulsive disorder during COVID-19: Turning a problem into an opportunity?. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 77, 102329. Advance online publication.

Leeb R.T., Bitsko R.H., Radhakrishnan L., Martinez P., Njai R., and Holland K.M. Mental health–related emergency department visits among children aged <18 years during the COVID-19 pandemic: United States, January 1–October 17, 2020. icon.

Reports of increases in opioid- and other drug-related overdose and other concerns during COVID pandemic [Issue brief]. American Medical Association, Advocacy Resource Center.…

Slisco, A. (2020, April 16). Americans are taking 34 percent more anxiety meds since coronavirus pandemic started, study says. Newsweek.…

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