By Elizabeth Millard (From Very Well Mind Website)

Key Takeaways

  • The latest data released by the CDC shows significant increases in mental health issues as the pandemic continues.
  • This adds to similar research showing there’s a growing prevalence of anxiety and mental distress, even among those who’ve never had these issues before.
  • Focusing on what you can control can help, especially staying socially connected and establishing solid routines.

The COVID-19 pandemic is causing significant increases in mental health conditions and substance use, with 40% of adults struggling in the United States, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Experts fear that prolonged stress and ongoing uncertainty may have lasting consequences for our mental health.

“The brain loves certainty, familiarity, routines, plans, and habits. When those are missing, it can be very challenging. When they’re missing for months, and potentially long into the future, then it gets even more problematic,” says Paul Nestadt, MD, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

CDC Statistics

Showing stats from late June based on a survey of U.S. adults, the report found a prevalence of:

  • Anxiety/depression symptoms: 31%
  • Trauma/stressor-related disorder symptoms: 26%
  • Started or increased substance use: 13%
  • Seriously considered suicide: 11%

The CDC data is not the only research to indicate a widespread increase in mental health issues, particularly anxiety. Recently, the Kaiser Family Foundation released the results of a poll showing that 53% of respondents believe COVID-19 is taking a toll on their mental health, an increase of 14% since May.

The Burden of No Endpoint

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, people found ways to cope because there seemed to be a light at the end of the lockdown tunnel. But as it continued to drag on and on, the lack of a potential endpoint became kindling for burnout, according to Nestadt.

Recently, the phrase “pandemic fatigue” has been cropping up more often, and Nestadt anticipates that as summer turns to fall, it could deepen. “It’s the not knowing that will continue to drive anxiety,” he says.

“Even when told that COVID-19 might stretch through the end of the year and beyond, with some experts saying to prepare for this as the new normal for potentially a few years, I think most of us could only see a few months ahead,” Nestadt says. “Psychologically, humans can be much more resilient knowing when a challenging time will end, because they can aim toward that endpoint. This pandemic doesn’t have one, and that’s a big problem.”

Psychologically, humans can be much more resilient knowing when a challenging time will end, because they can aim toward that endpoint. This pandemic doesn’t have one, and that’s a big problem.— PAUL NESTADT, MD

Will we eventually adjust to this as the new normal? We don’t know yet. Will anxiety and depression continue its upward trajectory, especially in a fearsome political climate? We don’t know. What impact will all of this have long term when it comes to every aspect of our society, from public health to business operations to family relationships? At this point, it’s anyone’s guess.

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Same Pandemic, Different Experiences

Compounding the issue of mental health right now is that not everyone is dealing with the same level of difficulties.

A recent survey conducted by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health cited financial instability as a key driver of pandemic-related anxiety in the U.S. Researchers found that household incomes of less than $35,000 per year were associated with increased levels of mental distress, compared to households with higher incomes.

“This isn’t surprising, because those in lower income brackets often have someone in the household who may have been subject to a pay cut or became unemployed as a result of COVID,” said Elizabeth Stuart, PhD, associate dean for education at the Bloomberg School, during a press briefing about the results of the survey.

In the recent Kaiser Family Foundation report, 40% of respondents said they had difficulty paying for necessities in the last three months, including health insurance coverage, medical bills, food, and utilities. Of those, over half said it was because coronavirus had an impact on their financial situation.

That report also noted that certain groups, including Hispanic and Black adults, were more likely to have adverse health effects related to worry or stress related to the coronavirus.

Strategies to Try

As the pandemic continues, Stuart had said that public health efforts and outreach will be crucial, as well as increasing access to mental health resources. That will be especially important for those facing financial difficulties and are unemployed, since they might not be able to afford to utilize mental health services.

“We need to continue collecting data that shows us who is most at risk,” Stuart said. “From there, it’s vital to allocate resources based on those risk levels.”

We need to continue collecting data that shows us who is most at risk. From there, it’s vital to allocate resources based on those risk levels.— ELIZABETH STUART, PHD

For individuals, there are short-term strategies that may alleviate at least some anxiety symptoms, according to Alyza Berman, LCSW, founder and clinical director of The Berman Center, a mental health treatment center in Atlanta. Those include:

  • Staying connected socially to friends and family
  • Focusing on healthy habits, particularly exercise, sleep, and healthy eating
  • Creating structure if you work from home by having a “sign-on” and “sign-off” time for work
  • Taking frequent breaks
  • Moderating alcohol consumption

Also, Berman adds, consider using mental health resources like a therapist if you feel overwhelmed, anxious, or simply like doing a check-in with a mental health professional.

What This Means for You

Living through a pandemic is no easy task and there is no shame in asking for help. If you find yourself experiencing emotional and mental health challenges or signs of anxiety and/or depression, talk with your primary care physician for appropriate mental healthcare referrals.

You may be able to do telehealth sessions with a therapist or counselor, even as a new patient. If you’re having any thoughts of self-harm or suicide, help is available 24/7 at the National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255.

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