Is a Mental Health Crisis the Next Pandemic?
New study confirms mental and physical health declining post-Covid-19 pandemic.
Posted March 17, 2021 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
- New surveys are revealing the depth of the damage to mental health caused by the pandemic across the United States. Two-thirds of adults say their sleep quality has declined in the past year, more than half have experienced undesired weight change, and one in four are drinking more.
- Changes forced on people by the pandemic have limited their access to coping tools such as exercise and social support.
- Continued stigma around discussing mental health problems, and a lack of access to care, have kept many people from getting professional help.
Between the social isolation, economic instability, political turmoil, racial violence, death and sickness, and overall uncertainty about the future, it is no wonder that mental health in America is on the decline, that depression and anxiety levels are on the rise, and that the demand for mental health and addiction treatment is skyrocketing.
We know the toll that chronic stress can take on the body, mind, and spirit. Not only have the events of the past 12 months taken their toll on our mental health, but our physical health has suffered as well. This is not surprising given the inextricable link between physical and mental health.
We are facing a national mental health crisis that could yield serious health and social consequences for years to come. —American Psychological Association (APA).
A study published by the American Psychological Association (APA) confirms what most of us have already suspected. According to a survey conducted by the Harris Poll in late February 2021, 1 in 5 adults reported that their mental health has worsened over the past year. Parents of young children, essential workers, young people, low-income populations, and people of color[ have been especially hard hit. For those of us on the front lines of the current mental health crisis, or what the APA predicted to be a “second pandemic,” the results of this study came as no surprise.
Disrupted Sleep, Weight Changes, and Increased Substance Use
According to the Harris poll, some of the most significant manifestations of the cumulative stress of the past year among the population have been disrupted sleep patterns, weight changes, and increased substance use. Among Generation Z adults in particular (18-24-year-olds), disrupted sleep patterns (31%) and weight changes (28%) have been two of the most common effects.
Whether it is getting too much or not nearly enough, most Americans (67%) reported that their sleep has been negatively affected over the past year. Racing minds plus disrupted schedules and routines (or lack thereof) are contributing factors.
More than half of adults in the United States have experienced undesired weight changes since the start of the pandemic, either gaining or losing; 42 percent have gained on average about 29 pounds over the last year. This can be attributed to limited access to exercise facilities, the forced sedentary lifestyle for many during lockdown, and more broadly, a lack of motivation to be physically active, and the use of food to cope with boredom, anxiety, loneliness, and depression.
According to the study, nearly one in four adults (23%) reported drinking more alcohol to cope with stress during the pandemic. Among those with early elementary school-age children (5-7-year-olds), this number jumps to almost half.
Stripped of Our Coping Tools
Survey responses reveal that physical health may be declining due to an inability to cope in healthy ways with the stresses of the pandemic. —APA
Many of the resources that we have relied on for coping during times of distress have been forcibly removed from our toolbox of skills by the pandemic. One of our most essential resources when it comes to our mental well-being is social support.
Quarantine, isolation, and social distancing practices do not just affect us physically; they create a recipe for psychological disaster. This is particularly the case for those who already struggle with mental health conditions in non-pandemic times. “Our bodies are not built to withstand long-term trauma,” says clinical psychologist Sabrina Romanoff. “In turn, we become deregulated and adapt. While this helps us to survive and hold onto a semblance of sanity, we may tend to make choices that are not as hypervigilant and safe as we would in the throes of the beginning stages of a trauma.”
The collective trauma of the events that have occurred over the past year has consumed not just our clients; as mental health professionals, we are not immune either. We can only do our best to pull from our experience and what we know to be effective in coping with trauma, and impart that knowledge to our clients and apply it to ourselves. Below are just a few suggestions.
Stress Essential Reads
Kindness is the humanity we show to others. If you’re feeling down or depressed, there’s no better way to snap out of it [than] by doing something good for someone else in need. he greatest blessing in the pandemic has been the countless acts of sacrifice, service, and love shown by ordinary folks doing extraordinary acts of kindness around the world. —Elia Gourgouris, PhD, Certified American Red Cross Disaster Mental Health Relief expert
A lot of my clients have raved of the benefits of their new “COVID puppies/kitties” that gave them distraction, affection, exercise, and kept loneliness at bay. Vast research proves that interaction with animals boosts our dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, which helps us feel connected. —Kriya Lendzion, licensed mental health clinician and addictions therapist
Group therapy may be particularly helpful for those struggling with the emotional repercussions of the last year. Until it is deemed safe enough to return to in-person therapy, such services are available and easily accessible remotely. Perhaps building the foundation for the therapeutic relationship and connections with peers online now, with the anticipation of joining in person and deepening those bonds, we can add to our toolbox of coping mechanisms.
Remember That You Are Not Alone
A pillar of self-compassion is our shared humanity, the idea that we are never alone. More than a platitude, we now have empirical evidence that says, “You are not alone in this.” Whether you are experiencing increasing anxiety, lower mood, lack of motivation, difficulty sleeping, or overall pandemic fatigue, a large part of the population is feeling similar effects after what has been an unfathomably turbulent year.
One of the tenets of the Buddhist philosophy is the acknowledgment that there is no permanence in life. Nothing will last forever. In times when life feels hopeless, it is imperative to remember this and to remember that there is a light at the end of what has felt like a very dark tunnel. We can now look forward to spending time with old friends and family members we have not seen in more than a year, celebrating holidays and birthdays, planning future vacations, and most of all, appreciating all that we previously took for granted.
Although we have not been exactly here before, we have been through similar times. We made it through the polio epidemic, the Spanish flu, the AIDS crisis, and other global catastrophes that have occurred throughout human history. And time proves over and over again what a resilient bunch we humans are. This is especially the case for children, who have a remarkable ability to bounce back from hardship and adversity.
No Room for Mental Health Stigma
These reported health impacts signal many adults may be having difficulties managing stressors, including grief and trauma, and are likely to lead to significant, long-term individual and societal consequences, including chronic illness and additional strain on the nation’s health care system. —APA, Stress in America, “One Year Later, a New Wave of Pandemic Health Concerns”
When we experience debilitating symptoms of a physical condition such as cancer or a deadly virus, it makes perfect sense to seek professional treatment. Insurance companies and employers agree with this; hence policies around healthcare coverage and sick days. This application should be no different for mental health conditions, especially when symptoms threaten daily functioning. Perhaps the combination of increased access to care via remote channels and the ongoing strain of the events of the past year have encouraged more people, including those who perhaps otherwise would not have sought out treatment, to be more open to doing so.
A clear and present fear among mental healthcare providers and clients alike is the potential discontinuation of insurance coverage for remote therapy services. To lift reimbursement policies for remote mental health services is to cut off access to care for countless numbers of individuals in need. Parity in telehealth services should have been the norm even prior to the pandemic, but now—perhaps more than ever, as new norms develop in the way we live and how we receive treatment—it is imperative that managed care companies, which so many of us rely on, keep up with the changing times and be a part of the solution to the mental health crisis in America.
To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory
American Psychological Association (2021). Stress in America, One Year Later, a New Wave of Pandemic Health Concerns.
American Psychological Association (2020). Stress in America, A National Mental Health Crisis.