There was a mental health crisis in America long before officials confirmed the first case of COVID-19 in the United States. Experts warned the pandemic would deepen those problems.
Fear of illness and financial hardship would make people more worried and anxious. Substance abuse would worsen in isolation and as a misguided coping mechanism. Loneliness and disruption of support networks would lead to depression.
Those worries appear justified, according to new data from Eastern Virginia Medical School researchers. Their findings confirm a looming mental health catastrophe unfolding across Virginia that will require concerted effort to address.
EVMS reports that Virginians responding to their survey have been experiencing mental health issues at three times the rate of pre-pandemic levels. Of the 450 respondents participating in March, “one in four reported signs and symptoms of moderate to severe anxiety or moderate to severe depression … 22% [reported] moderate to severe anxiety, and 24% reported moderate to severe depression,” per Pilot reporting.
The study, known as COVIDsmart, intends to compile information about daily health matters during the pandemic, for people infected with the disease as well as those who avoided it but who, like all of us, have been affected by the experience.
These recent findings reflect only 450 respondents — this isn’t the most comprehensive sample, mind you — but 575 people have participated in the COVIDsmart effort. Researchers have a goal of reaching 2,000 participants by the end of May. (Sign up at covidsmartstudy.org.)
While those preliminary findings come from a limited sample, they mirror research from other outlets and reflect national trends of a spike in mental health issues during the COVID-19 crisis. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report in April which found, “During Aug. 19-Feb. 1, the percentage of adults with symptoms of an anxiety or a depressive disorder during the past 7 days increased significantly (from 36.4% to 41.5%), as did the percentage reporting that they needed but did not receive mental health counseling or therapy during the past 4 weeks (from 9.2% to 11.7%).”
More robust telehealth may help alleviate that figure, but it relies on reliable high-speed internet and, in many cases, health insurance, which narrow availability. Again, there are issues that pre-date the pandemic, but that may prove to be a problem made more severe as a result of it.
Some — far too many — have turned to drugs and alcohol as a coping strategy. The Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association found that 3.6% more Virginians were admitted into hospitals last year for alcohol and drug-related illnesses.
If there’s one silver lining in all of this, it’s that a predicted spike in suicide did not materialize. Reporting by the American Medical Association, using CDC data, found that while U.S. deaths increased 17.7% overall in 2020, suicides decreased 5.6%, to fewer than 45,000 last year.
Researchers are still reviewing that data, but it suggests that while people were struggling with more depression, anxiety and substance abuse, our frayed support networks may have held together enough to deter some of the worst outcomes.
That is a victory, but it doesn’t diminish the urgency of the larger concern about mental health in our communities, even as restrictions ease, the pandemic ebbs and people reconnect to their lives.
Public health experts can help by communicating clearly about mental health, that feelings of depression and anxiety are common and that help is available. Government, both state and local, should invest in mental health care, making it more accessible and affordable, and broadly advertise those options.
But the best advocates are loved ones and friends who know to recognize signs of mental illness and can encourage treatment from a position of familiarity and trust. If someone is in crisis, dial 911 or the suicide prevention hotline at 800-273-8255. If someone needs help but is not in imminent danger, contact your local community services board.
Addressing mental health will be a substantial challenge in the post-pandemic landscape and we must take care to tend to those who suffered emotionally and psychologically, if not physically, over the last year.