Over a year after the global COVID-19 pandemic has uprooted the lives of every single person in the world, things are starting to feel a little bit more “normal.” Businesses are beginning to re-open, people are starting to mingle again, and more and more people are getting vaccinated every day.
It’s time to assess the negative impact that the COVID-19 outbreak has had on mental health.
By the Numbers: Mental Health and COVID-19
March and April of 2020 marked two months of intense, abrupt, and frightening change when lockdown measures were put in place in the United States, the UK, and around the world as COVID-19 deaths rose. At this time, a preliminary study in India was conducted at a telephone helpline for mental health crises.
Between April 7-24, 2020 it was found that nearly 80% of respondents were male, and 46% of the callers had anxiety. Additionally, 8.3% had depressive disorder, and another 14% had symptoms of depressive disorders. Even though “the blues” can come and go in waves, a major depressive episode lasts at least two weeks and was what these findings had shown. Finally, a little over 5% of people experienced suicidal thoughts.
In the event one experiences suicidal thoughts, it’s best to always seek medical advice immediately or contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for help right away.
Compare this to worldwide estimates and you can see how COVID-19 has increased mental health conditions among the population. It’s estimated that 3.8% of the global population have anxiety disorders, while 3.4% have depression. Similarly, these mental disorders are usually more common in females, or at the least, they are identified more often in females.
Even almost a year after the initial lockdowns, higher rates of depression and anxiety are still prevalent. In January to June of 2019, it was estimated that around 11% of American adults experienced symptoms of anxiety, psychological distress or depressive disorders. In January of 2021, this number now rests at over 41%.
While these numbers are striking, it is reassuring to know that there is not a single person in the world who has been unaffected by COVID-19. Your feelings of fear and worry during times like these are rational, normal, and expected.
Sources of COVID-19 Stress
Anxiety and mood disorders were the most common diagnosis among those with COVID. So why exactly did COVID-19 contribute so strongly to feelings of uneasiness, depression, and fear? It’s a combination of a few different factors.
Harsh and Abrupt Change
When lockdown measures were originally put into place, it felt like the entire world had been flipped upside down. People were out of jobs, unable to go to stores, and barred from even leaving their homes all in the span of just a few days.
Humans get set in their schedule and daily routines, feeling comfort in having a sense of control. The uncertainty that the coronavirus outbreak caused created a sense of vulnerability, which can make you feel innately anxious, worried, or on-edge.
This was especially true for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The COVID-19 pandemic posed a specific set of challenges for this community, as well as for their friends and family.
During the pandemic, there was a prevalence of mental illness and substance misuse. Worsening mental health increased the use of tobacco, alcohol, and other substances. With social distancing, the lack of resources available and the ability for intervention was limited, thus enabling more misuse.
Substance misuse and mental health issues like anxiety, chronic stress, and depression are often co-occurring disorders. Untreated mental health issues can lead to worsening substance misuse, but increased misuse of alcohol and drugs can also exacerbate existing mental health conditions or increase the risk of developing a mental health condition.
Humans are social creatures by nature, and we often feel happier and more confident when around other people. Belonging to a social network can help ease stress and boost self-esteem.
Naturally, when the lockdown prevented people from being able to interact in traditional manners, it led to feelings of isolation and loneliness. Social isolation can significantly increase the risk of premature mortality and substance use disorders.
No matter gender or ethnicity, adults, young adults or kids, all alike were all affected by the pandemic. Public health actions, such as social distancing can take a toll as well. Although necessary to reduce the spread of COVID-19, it can bring up emotions like loneliness and increase stress and anxiety as well.
Fear of Becoming Sick
The virus itself was also a rational source of fear among the worldwide population. Given the virus’ contagious nature as well as its high mortality rate, many people became extremely frightened by contracting the illness or spreading it to others. Additionally, grief due to loss of a loved one from the virus caused feelings of depression.
While these fears are normal, they posed a unique set of challenges for individuals with contamination OCD, a subtype of obsessive-compulsive disorder in which a person obsesses over contracting an illness or spreading an illness. For these individuals, the stressors of contracting COVID-19 may have been even more intense.
Now that lockdown measures are slowly being lifted and a semblance of “normal” life is returning, there are some new challenges that are being presented by the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 can result in psychological issues due to both pandemic stress and the physical effects of the disease, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
A third of those with a previous COVID-19 infection went on to develop or have a relapse of a psychological or neurological condition and those admitted to hospital or an ICU had an even higher risk.
As some social circles are returning to normal, there can be some anxieties based on individual preferences in each circle. For example, even though some friends in a social group are comfortable going to a restaurant, there may be some members who are still worried about going into public spaces.
It’s important to have conversations with your friends and try to come up with reasonable accommodations to keep everyone involved. You should never feel guilty about not wanting to go out until you feel comfortable.
A similar phenomenon is occurring in regards to vaccine hesitancy, where individuals who are scared to receive the COVID-19 vaccine may feel a sense of otherness. Being on the fence is normal, so you should speak with a healthcare provider to learn about the facts. This can help ease your concerns and make you feel more confident about getting a vaccine.
Although we are beginning to re-enter “normal” life, the pandemic is not yet over. Many people remain worried about contracting the virus, especially as various COVID-19 variants arise and create new outbreaks.
The pandemic also made many individuals more aware of their overall health and primed to consider their health more often. Even if they aren’t anxious about COVID-19 or its variants, they may have a new sense of health anxiety. When someone has health anxiety, they’re prone to misinterpreting innocuous physical sensations as signs of danger or illness. This worry comes with the feeling that good health can change at any moment, a concept that many people considered for the first time during lockdown.
Mental Health Disorders
While loosening restrictions and lower case numbers may help to alleviate some of the anxious and depressive symptoms that may have arisen during the pandemic, a good amount of people will continue to have mental health problems that they developed because of the pandemic, after the pandemic subsides.
Additionally, the potential impacts of COVID-19 on childhood development won’t be understood until the future. Previous studies have revealed that epidemics can lead to high levels of stress in both children and parents. Similarly, symptoms of anxiety, depression, PTSD, and developmental delays are common in adults who grew up during times of epidemic.
Coping with COVID-19 Depression
At this point, many people have adjusted to the “new normal,” but that doesn’t mean that you might not still feel uneasy or upset about the ongoing pandemic and its implications.
One of the most important things you can do is manage your stress and anxiety through relaxation techniques, such as deep-breathing, meditation, or yoga.
Additionally, it’s important to prioritize nutrition and exercise. In a time when it feels like you’ve lost control, exercising and eating right can not only reduce your nerves, but it can let you regain a sense of control over your life.
Finally, you may want to try telemedicine. One of the silver linings of COVID-19 is that mental healthcare has become much more accessible, and you can speak with a licensed therapist safely from home. Therapy can be very beneficial, as can having medication be delivered to your home. These are great ways to get the treatment you need without putting yourself or others at risk.
COVID-19 has upended the lives of people all over the world, from New York to London, Boston to Beijing. The increase in mental health conditions is proof that the lockdowns, virus fears, re-opening worries, and developing virus variants are very real. Symptoms of depression and anxiety are at an all-time high, even over a year after the initial shutdowns.
Sources of COVID-19 anxiety can stem from many things, including abrupt change, isolation, and fear of becoming sick. Additionally, long-term effects of the pandemic include feelings of exclusion and mental health disorders that persist even after COVID-19 is no longer a threat.
While pandemic fears and anxieties are undoubtedly stressful, we are all in this together. There is nothing wrong with getting a little bit of help from someone if you’re not feeling like yourself.
Brightside is a virtual mental health service that matches you with a therapist and psychiatric provider, allowing you to craft a personalized treatment plan to help you cope with COVID-19 fears.
Even though the pandemic is starting to subside, it’s never too late to get some help.
Click here to start your free assessment and get one step closer to feeling like yourself again.