COVID-19’s hidden mental health crisis
Grab the keys, tie your shoelaces, slip on a mask, and you’re on your way. Almost 7 months after Washington state Governor Jay Inslee issued the COVID-19 stay-at-home order, social distancing and quarantine have become the “new normal.” Over are the days of standing within 6 feet of a stranger and coughing in public.
While social distancing is saving thousands of lives from COVID-19, new evidence suggests that the constant isolation is taking a significant toll on the mental health of residents who are upholding their duty to stop the virus’s spread. Although the average level of mental health in the community has stayed relatively stable, there are signs that the pandemic has exacerbated the struggles of those already grappling with mental health issues.
When the greater Seattle area was declared ground-zero early on during the pandemic, researchers at the University of Washington (UW) acted quickly to determine the social consequences of COVID-19. Adam Kuczynski is a clinical psychology graduate student at UW, and a lead investigator who helped field one of the pandemic’s earliest mental health studies. Launched on March 14, roughly a week before Inslee issued the stay-at-home order, the UW COVID-19 Response Study surveyed 500 King County adults daily for 75 consecutive days. According to the study’s website, participants were questioned about their mental health (e.g., anxiety, depression), social well-being (e.g., loneliness, relationship satisfaction), and behavior (e.g., how much social interaction they had, whether they reached out to others for emotional support).
“Some people were really affected by the pandemic, and some people really weren’t,” said Kucynski. “We definitely saw that the pandemic affected people differently.”
While levels of loneliness and depression remained relatively stable over the course of the 75-day survey, average anxiety levels, including anxiety about the pandemic in particular, steadily decreased.
“As we habituated to the threat that we were facing, as we learned more information about it, we became less anxious,” Kuczynski said. “That’s a very healthy coping response to a situation like this.”
The UW scientists found no significant variation in results across gender or race and ethnicity. Despite public health events like the extension of the lockdown or announcements of additional symptoms and possible treatments or vaccines, there were no major dips or spikes in the data over the course of the study.
While this data suggests that the proportion of the population struggling with mental health has remained roughly the same, anecdotal evidence suggests that those already struggling with their mental health have experienced an increase in symptoms and have been seeking more help.
Bipasha Mukherjee has volunteered at Crisis Connections for more than 20 years. Crisis Connections is home to five mental health crisis lines, with more than 400 trained volunteers and experienced staff. Over the past six months, Mukherjee has seen an increase in callers’ loneliness and stress levels due to everything from working at home to being laid off. While many tele-help services are still available, Mukherjee has had to adapt her recommendations to callers who no longer have other outlets for help due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“We often remind callers about the sources of support in their lives and even to remember to eat. We don’t realize it but thinking is exhausting,” said Mukherjee.
Mukherjee explained that something as simple as walking around the block or watching some television can do wonders.
“At the end of the day, coping mechanisms do not always work and that can be okay,” she said. “All of us have sad days every now and then.”
Paula Olson has been a counselor at Eastlake High School for 5 years and reported similar trends.
“Since quarantine I’ve had a lot more questions and issues with students dealing with loneliness and isolation. And absolutely with depression and/or suicide ideation. So [quarantine has] most definitely affected everybody,” Olson said.
Olson explained that because of the isolating effect of remote learning, students and teachers alike are having increased difficulty in developing and maintaining relationships within the classroom. She encourages community members to reach out to friends, family, and others even if it is just to check in. Olson also reaffirmed the importance of self-care.
“We need to be more mindful about how we’re feeling and actively do things to de-stress, to appreciate things, and enjoy time,” she said.
Statistical evidence of this undiscussed crisis is visible on the national level as well. In late June, the CDC conducted representative panel surveys across the adult population of the United States to compare the mental health before and during the pandemic. This study was conducted several months after the UW study and did not follow a static sample. Compared to the second quarter of 2019, the number of people reporting symptoms of anxiety disorder increased approximately threefold and the prevalence of depressive disorders quadrupled. According to the CDC, the number of participants reporting “serious consideration of suicide in the previous 30 days” was more than double the number of participants reporting similar thoughts in 2018, the last time the CDC posed the question. This indicates that people are becoming more open about the symptoms they are experiencing at home and are more willing to discuss their mental health.
Olson and Mukherjee both emphasize the importance of not trivializing struggles with mental health.
“Mental health is too important not to always take it seriously because of the dire effects that it could have,” Olson said.
“Not only is the mind part of the body, it is the driving force,” Mukherjee said. “Going to a counselor/therapist should not be any different than going to the cardiologist.”
Sammamish is stepping up to offer help and resources to those struggling with their mental health. On August 11, Sammamish City Council issued an ordinance officially recognizing September as Suicide Prevention Month. Local organizations have also launched initiatives to spread awareness. The Sammamish YMCA hosted a suicide prevention webinar series led by local mental health experts and therapists. Recordings of webinars on topics ranging from “Stigma and Misconceptions of Suicide” to “What causes Depression and Anxiety” are available on the YMCA website. Similarly, the King County Library System hosted a virtual seminar on teen suicide prevention on October 10 which included information on when and how to get help for anxiety and depression. The Seattle Children’s Hospital is hosting free virtual classes to educate adults about youth mental health in November and December. Additionally, Youth Eastside Services and Crosspath Counseling & Consulting, in coordination with the City of Sammamish, will offer a 2-hour course to teach teens about advocating for mental health and substance use issues.
Amidst the pandemic, it is more important than ever that our community pulls together to check in on our neighbors and to foster long overdue dialogue on issues such as mental health. As Olson put it, “We are all in this boat together.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health, please call one of the numbers below for help.
- Teen Link: 1-866-833-6546
- 24-hour crisis line: 1-855-427-4747
- National Suicide Prevention Toll Line: 1-800-273-8255