The global novel coronavirus pandemic afflicting everyone is showing mixed signs of activity. In some countries it appears to be easing, while in others it appears to be experiencing a resurgence. It’s not at all clear when the pandemic will end, but it’s unlikely to do so before 2021.
What has become increasingly clear is that the toll of the pandemic will impact more than the people who come down with COVID-19. The mental health impact of living with a pandemic is being mostly ignored — for now.
But as the deaths continue to rise, we need to pay close attention to the cost of the pandemic’s repercussions on people’s mental health.
In early May, Megan Brooks over at Medscape wrote about deaths of despair that could reach more than 75,000, according to a new study:
The number of “deaths of despair” could be even higher if the country fails to take bold action to address the mental health toll of unemployment, isolation, and uncertainty, according to the report from the Well Being Trust (WBT) and the Robert Graham Center for Policy Studies in Family Medicine and Primary Care. […]
The report offers several policy solutions to prevent a surge in “avoidable” deaths. They include finding ways to ameliorate the effects of unemployment and provide meaningful work to those who are out of work. Making access to care easier and fully integrating mental health and addiction care into primary and clinical care as well as community settings are also essential.
The challenge is that many people feel more alone than ever, physically isolated from their friends and loved ones. While technology has helped bridge the social gap, people are simply not equipped to cope with staying at home for extended periods of time. It’s as if our lives have been put on hold. We’re all waiting… for something.
That something is, of course, for science to take its course and figure out (a) the mechanics of the novel coronavirus and COVID-19, (b) treatments for people who get sick from it, and (c) eventually a vaccine that is both safe and effective. Society won’t stop suffering from COVID-19 sickness and deaths until a vaccine is widely introduced and society gains herd immunity (requiring over 70 percent of the population to get the vaccine).
Willing the coronavirus to simple “go away” while leaders attempt to reopen their economies isn’t going to help (and is actually a sign of magical thinking). People going to restaurants and bars without masks on and without social distancing is likely only going to lead to a resurgence of the outbreak.
In an interview with Shelia Rauch, PhD., associate professor of psychiatry at the Emory University School of Medicine, there is concern that diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are going to surge with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic:
Are we going to see a PTSD or anxiety epidemic as a result of the pandemic?
First, I think it’s really important that we prepare for the worst but hope for the best. But I would expect that given the high levels of stress, the impact on resources, and other factors, we are going to see a pretty significant mental health impact over time. This could be the new normal for a while. Some of that will be PTSD but there will also be other things. I would suspect that the resulting increase in rates of depression, traumatic grief, and loss is probably going to be a significant issue for years to come.
What will the anxiety we see as a result of COVID-19 look like compared with that seen in past disasters, like 9/11?
Most disasters in recent history, like 9/11, are single incidents. Something horrible happened, it impacted people at different levels, and we were able to start putting the pieces back together right away. The prolonged nature of this pandemic makes it even more variable, given that the impact is going to be extended over time.
We’re also going to see a lot more people with compound impact—people who’ve lost their jobs, loved ones, maybe even their homes. All of those financial and resource losses put people in a higher risk category for negative mental health outcomes.
The economic toll of the virus cannot be minimized. It is devastating many people’s lives, and at least in the U.S., the $1,200 stimulus check combined with unemployment benefits is barely keeping most people’s head above water. People out of work also experience a sense of hopelessness and for many, a lack of defined direction and meaning in their lives. A job is a part of many people’s identity. Taking that away from a person, even for a short period, can wreak havoc on one’s mood, self-worth, and self-esteem.
Loneliness takes its toll on people even during the best of times. But when we are all physically isolating ourselves to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, loneliness becomes an even bigger problem.
Suzanne Kane recently wrote an excellent piece about what loneliness can do to a person when it’s left unchecked.
In short, she reminds us that the research shows us that loneliness:
- May increase inflammation within the body, resulting in a weakened immune system, increasing vulnerability to the virus
- May change our very gene expressions, specifically leukocytes, that are also important to the immune system
- Makes coping and dealing with stress more difficult
- Negatively impacts our sleep quality
- Negatively impacts our ability to concentrate and make decisions
- Can contribute to increase substance abuse and addiction.
Check out the the article to learn more.
The World Health Organization (WHO) also warned of consequences if the world’s mental health if governments and world leads don’t recognize and work to address the problem, sooner rather than later.
“The COVID-19 virus is not only attacking our physical health; it is also increasing psychological suffering: grief at the loss of loved ones, shock at the loss of jobs, isolation and restrictions on movement, difficult family dynamics, uncertainty and fear for the future,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said in a video message launching a mental health policy brief this week.
Here’s their full report (PDF).
In short, there appears to be a growing recognition by policy experts, researchers, mental health professionals, and public health leaders that the coronavirus is going to have long-lasting, significant mental health effects for millions of people.
So the policy makers and governments, to widely varying degrees, are doing their part. What can we do about it? We can work together to do the best we can to help address these concerns on a personal level and within our own groups of friends and family.
What this means is to reach out to friends or family you’re concerned about, especially those you’re not hearing much from these days. The stay-at-home orders affect different people in different ways. Be respectful that some people may be having a really hard time with them and the coronavirus outbreak in general, and try to offer ways you can help. Maybe you can bring someone groceries, especially the seniors in your life. Maybe you can agree to just do a video chat or phone call once a week with a person.
It doesn’t take much. But it does ask someone to take the first step toward reaching out and offering help.
And if you’re need of help yourself, please, reach out to someone today. It doesn’t have to be a friend or family member. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, and a caring, trained volunteer will listen to you. Rather text? Text HOME to 741741 instead to start a text conversation with someone at the amazing Crisis Text Line service. Both are free and available 24/7.
Together, we will all get through these trying times. Stay well.