How COVID-19 Is Exacerbating Mental Health Crisis — And What We Can Do About It

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The mental health crisis in the United States has existed and been documented for decades now.

“When it comes to mental illness, Americans are suffering one of the more pervasive symptoms: denial,” CBS News reported in 1999. “The biggest challenge, it seems, is just asking for help.”

More than two decades later, the coronavirus pandemic and the current political environment are exacerbating the preexisting mental health crisis. It appears that loss of hope, learned helplessness — which occurs when an individual keeps facing a negative, seemingly uncontrollable situation and stops trying to change their circumstances — and existential distress in light of a global health crisis are major factors that are further undermining the mental strength of our society.

“Positive images of the future carry us forward to our destiny, despite the inevitable twists and turns of life. We each have a destiny, a best possible future. Yet we are constantly getting in our own way, losing sight of that future. In the process, we lose hope,” wrote humanistic psychologist Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman in his Beautiful Minds blog in Scientific American. Hopefulness is important because of the power of positivity in overcoming depression, according to Kaufman. However, it seems like in this current climate, we are seeing an increase in “existential anxiety provoked by the COVID-19 pandemic,” as the result “of a confrontation with the givens of death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness,” independent researcher Paddy Farr explained in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology.

Farr wrote that “the existential threat of COVID-19 touches both clients and therapists alike. Together, we experience an existential anxiety that calls everything we have come to expect into doubt.” US Census Bureau data supports this conclusion, with its April 2020 survey finding that “48% of Americans are feeling down, depressed, or hopeless during the COVID-19 pandemic,” USA Facts reported.

Since 2011, the rate of depression for the US adult population has steadily risen from 17.5 percent to 19.6 percent in 2018, which is the last year that data is available, according to the report.

In the early 2000s, 38 percent of the US working-age population saw a decline in life expectancy. This “stark and dramatic reversal” was documented “in the disturbing book Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, by the husband-and-wife team of Anne Case and Angus Deaton, who won the 2015 Nobel Prize for Economics,” NPR reported. Much of this decline “stems from higher rates of suicide, opioid overdoses and alcohol-related illnesses — the ‘deaths of despair’ that Case and Deaton refer to.”

Case and Deaton describe America as “an intensely class-bound place, where the less-educated experience higher rates of severe mental disease, have more trouble with the ‘instrumental activities of daily life,’ such as walking, and report more pain,” NPR wrote.

Furthermore, Anchorage Daily News found that the pandemic is affecting already rising suicide rates. Los Alamos, New Mexico, “has seen an increase in suicides...rising from just two last year to triple that many so far this year,” the report stated.

“There are masses of people who are quite worried today because they don’t know what is going to happen to their benefits,” said American Psychiatric Association President Jeffrey Geller. “That kind of anxiety exacerbates fragility.”

Some experts “point to similar rises in suicide deaths during other health crises and economic recessions,” the report continued. “A 2019 study in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry looking at the 2008 economic crisis found that financial crises can lead to more suicides.”

“Education and front-line services are things that we can be doing right now immediately. In the same way we educate people about wearing masks and social distancing, we should be educating people about depression,” Geller added. “There aren’t enough resources because there weren’t enough resources before COVID.”

Can mental health and psychological well-being affect someone’s vulnerability to contracting COVID-19? The Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine (CEBM), on behalf of the Oxford COVID-19 Evidence Service Team, found that “people with severe mental illness (SMI) are a vulnerable population,” and there “is reason to suspect they may be at increased risk of contracting SARS-CoV-2 and have worse outcomes following infection.”

“Public health measures associated with COVID-19, including quarantine of suspected cases and lockdowns may negatively affect the mental health status of people with SMI, through change of environment, disruption of services, increased stress and isolation,” the report continued.

Beyond the mental struggles that individuals continue to face, COVID-19 has highlighted a family mental health crisis. The “combination of financial pressure, loss of child care and health concerns is exceedingly challenging for families,” The Conversation said. “The potential long-term consequences on children from increased parental stress, anxiety and depression are only beginning to be understood,” but “past research tells us that the children exposed to these problems are more likely to experience mental health problems themselves.”

Current studies show that pregnant women and those with young children are experiencing “three- to five-fold increases in self-reported anxiety and depression symptoms” during the pandemic, The Conversation wrote. “High rates of parental mental illness combined with children spending more time at home due to COVID-19 present multiple risks, including alterations in children’s stress-system function, higher rates of physical health problems and cognitive impairments.”

In addition, children “with the most direct exposure to the pandemic —for example, who lose a loved one or whose family is struggling with the disease, food shortages, or other deprivations—may be most at risk for psychological disturbances and should be prioritized for public services and community resources,” according to an article written by developmental psychologist Dr. Diana Divecha and published by the Greater Good Science Center at University of California, Berkeley.

“Children are most resilient when they’re embedded in a network of social support: a parent, a caring parent figure, or siblings,” Dr. Divecha noted. “Practical, positive decency offered by ordinary people will suffice.”

In order to provide support and care for children during COVID-19, addressing parental mental illness is important. Small steps such as “reaffirm[ing] that your emotions make sense” and seeking resources “to cultivate self-compassion” are important in alleviating the family mental crisis. These habits could “mitigate harmful effects on child health” and “build children’s capacities to manage other stressors, such as school transitions and other unpredictable events,” The Conversation stated.

The report also called for the “development of a national perinatal and family mental health strategy,” explaining that “early intervention investments are expected to yield high health and economic benefits by preventing the long-term consequences of parental mental illness.”

Although things may look grim in the world, the reassuring news is that “you don’t have to be perfect,” said Dr. Divecha. “What matters more is your flexibility to repair, regroup, and try again.” One skill we can all improve and embrace is prioritizing self-care, which is essential for allowing us to take care of our own well-being and giving us the capacity to maintain healthy relationships with those who are important to us.

“For now, the world is in a difficult state of uncertainty,” Dr. Divecha added. “But the enduring lessons for our children will surely be the emotional ones. These are the lessons they’ll remember as adults when they inevitably experience upheaval again — only then, it may be without us. So let’s stay focused on, and grateful for, what really matters.”

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