Coronavirus pandemic exacerbates mental health issues globally

The coronavirus pandemic has caused many people to experience mental health issues like depression and anxiety, and even suicidal tendencies. This has been exacerbated by the stressful loneliness of quarantine and isolation. Now, studies are finding these issues are hitting certain groups of people particularly hard. Dr. Roger McIntyre is a professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at the University of Toronto. He joined CBSN's Lana Zak to discuss how the global community can be more aware of these mental health issues.

Video Transcript

LANA ZAK: Psychologists are concerned that the pandemic is triggering a depression epidemic, made worse by loneliness. According to a recent Harvard University study, 36% of participants reported consistent feelings of loneliness over the past year. Researchers also found large spikes in depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideas. Joining me now is Dr. Roger McIntyre. He's a professor of Psychiatry and Pharmacology at the University of Toronto. He's also the CEO of Altmed, a pharmaceutical company. Thank you for being with us, Dr. McIntyre.

The Harvard study that we just mentioned found that out of the 36% of Americans who are experiencing, quote, "serious loneliness," that young adults and mothers seem to be disproportionately affected. Why is that?

ROGER MCINTYRE: Well, there's a host of reasons why that's the case. And that's an extremely important point to highlight, that this seems to be affecting our younger population, females more so. A couple of reasons immediately jump out as possible explanations. We know what's happened to the economy. This has been an incredible shock to our economy. And some parts of our economy have been affected more than others. For example, in the retail area as well as in the food, entertainment industry. These industries alone really have a higher representation of women who've been affected.

So there's already an additional economic shock that women are carrying an extra burden of. The second part about this, which I think is really interesting, is that when you look at what came into this pandemic, we were seeing long before this pandemic started that women were reporting higher rates of loneliness on a variety of rating scales, very similar to what you just documented. So what really caught my eye related to this, and I think what really is our call to action, is what occurred in Japan.

And so if we step back and we look at what happens in any economy when there's a shock, a consistent observation has been that middle aged men are the ones who are most worse off, if you will, from a mental health perspective. In Japan, they have just recorded a frankly mind-blowing elevation of suicide in young women. This is very different than what we're used to. And a couple of hypotheses has been the economics is affecting our women more than men, especially in the younger group. And we're also hearing in many parts of the country around the United States and Canada and elsewhere, increase in domestic violence at home and intimate partner violence, which may also be a contributing factor as well in some cases.

LANA ZAK: Well, it's all terrible. And it seems like the global economic situation has really contributed to that sharp rise in suicides since the beginning of the pandemic. What is being done on this front to try and reach out to people?

ROGER MCINTYRE: Well, this is a key part. And I think that what we need to take away from this is that we don't need to accept that the inevitability of this is severe depression, suicide, drug and alcohol abuse. We're seeing too much of this. There are things that we can do as individuals and as a society. For example, it's already been shown that if you maintain some degree of control over your life. What does that mean? Structure your day, get good sleep, have portion control with respect to alcohol and food.

This seems so basic, but it's been shown to give people a sense of efficacy and a sense of control, making them less anxious, less depressed, clearly to the extent possible, reach out and connect with people. We talk about social isolation. It's really physical isolation with social distancing. I've been hearing from people an interesting idea called "temporal distancing," or "time distancing." What does that even mean? What people do is they write letters to themselves, but that letter is dated June 2022.

In other words, you're taking yourself out of the here and now, write letter back to yourself in a different time. It's a very interesting construct. In other words, have a more sort of longitudinal look at this rather than narrow view of this, and the simple task has been shown to reduce distress. I think what's really important, also, we have to have better psychiatric first aid, services available for people who need them. We're seeing across the country, this is available. And that's been shown to mitigate this risk.

And frankly, the government support-- now, we need support when people are in a very bad situation. The government shutdown, the economy, the government should help the people. And we're actually seeing in many parts of the country, right across the US, all around the world, countries that are providing services, providing financial resources for people, those areas are seeing much lower rates of depression, drug, and alcohol. And interestingly, when this was happening in Japan in the early two to three months of the pandemic, they actually had a reduction in suicide.

So clearly, economic security is critical. But we don't just depend on government. We have to take responsibility ourselves, and that is about self-efficacy, taking control of your life, structuring your day, and indeed, stay connected to people.

LANA ZAK: So on that front, it's pretty obvious that as a society, we've been slow to evolve in our understanding of mental health issues. So what should we all be doing to be more vigilant about the impacts of the pandemic on mental health?

ROGER MCINTYRE: Well, I think the way you crafted the question, I think, is what we should be doing, in the sense we've got to think about this pandemic not only as a public health crisis, it's an economic shock like we've never registered globally all at the same time. And it is a mental health crisis. So people should be aware of that. In other words, it's understandable. It's not normal to be mentally ill, but it's understandable that these events are occurring. What I'm hearing from across the country-- this is interesting. Anecdotally, I talk to clinicians all over the United States, all over Canada, Europe, Asia.

They're saying to me, Roger, where are all the patients? No one's coming to us. They're all staying home. And this is an interesting aspect because we're seeing crisis lines ringing off the hook, increasing calls to 24-hour suicide lines. But many clinicians are seeing a decrease in people reaching out. So people need to be aware services are there. They've got to reach out. They work and they can reduce the distress. I hope out of this pandemic-- this pandemic is in the rearview mirror. We're all looking forward to it. We're all fed up of this.

We want our lives back and our livelihood back. What we really hope comes out of this as a national conversation is, we talked about this word "equity" in the previous interview with your guest. I think we need equity on mental health. This has got to be something that as a population, we've got to be thinking about and make it a priority protecting mental health and providing immediate and timely services for those who need it. Historically, psychiatry has always in fact been second and third on the list.

I think in fact this is the call to action. And I think if you surveyed people from the south of Florida to the north of Washington state up to Bangor, Maine, doesn't matter where we are, I think people are saying this is difficult. So I think the nation is ready for this conversation.

LANA ZAK: Yes, hopefully that call to action will be heard. Dr. Roger McIntyre, thank you.

ROGER MCINTYRE: Thanks for having me.