Amid the global coronavirus pandemic, another epidemic is raging: a mental health crisis.
Anxiety, depression and fear have reached new levels as we approach the one-year anniversary of the initial stay-at-home orders, which upended our lives with remote work, virtual school and a slew of retail, restaurant and other closures.
Life isn’t what it was. Many people are isolated from family, friends and colleagues, not seeing loved ones in person because of the threat of contracting or spreading the highly contagious — and potentially deadly — virus. Mask-wearing, social distancing and frequent hand-washing are the new norms and pose even more barriers to human interaction.
Economic uncertainty, isolation, deep political polarization and festering social unrest are intensifying this growing malaise, which mental health experts warn must be addressed hand-in-hand with combating COVID-19.
“The magnitude of this pandemic is inescapable, and it’s been terribly damaging to our collective mental health,” Michelle A. Williams, dean of the faculty at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said during a recent seminar with doctors, advocates and academics, “Mental Health in the Time of COVID-19.”
“No one is outside the psychological toll of this crisis,” she said. “There’s no physical health without mental health.”
Mental health includes our emotional, psychological and social well-being, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “It affects how we think, feel and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others and make healthy choices,” and is critical through all stages of life.
And it’s vital to our physical well-being.
When you’re stressed or anxious, your immune system weakens. Your sleep is disrupted. Studies show Americans already are sleep-deprived, which further aggravates your physical stamina and threatens your health.
According to the CDC, mental illness — especially depression — increases the risk for a variety of physical health problems, such as stroke, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
While the CDC says that in any year, 1 in 5 Americans seek help for a mental illness, mental health experts suggest that figure now is 2 in 5 — or even higher.
“The mental health crisis we faced before [the pandemic] has gotten worse,” said Ken Duckworth, M.D., chief medical officer of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). “We’ve seen a very substantial increase with the number of people trying to navigate the system” for help.
While social isolation is hard on adults, especially those who live alone, it’s particularly tough on younger Americans.
Anxiety and depression rates have been increasing among children and young adults, which only have worsened during the pandemic. Mental health experts wonder about the long-term effects of isolation on their development.
Children are seeing their routines altered as their education has been disrupted or if they lose contact with friends and classmates. They might no longer be playing sports, going to in-person music lessons or participating in other cherished activities. If their parents are anxious, they pick up on the unease.
Young adults face an uncertain job market. Plans to move or live on their own often are put on hold. It’s tough not seeing your friends and being surrounded by your support group, especially if you’re single — though that applies to any age.
Just like food and shelter, companionship is key to our well-being. We’re social creatures, dependent on each other for support in all forms.
“Humans have a biological need to interact,” said Dr. Karestan Chase Koenen, a professor of psychiatric epidemiology at Harvard. “We need other people.”
Many unknowns are fueling this rising anxiety. When will vaccines widely be available? When will schools reopen? How long must we wear masks? When will we feel safe again? When will life resume as we knew it — or what will that new landscape look like?
And what can be done to confront this epidemic?
Koenen suggested a mental health czar in the White House, a Dr. Anthony Fauci-type expert who would bring national attention to this challenge. Mental well-being needs to be elevated to a front-and-center position in our fight against the pandemic.
Be compassionate. If you know someone who’s having a hard time or is feeling isolated, reach out. Call friends, family or colleagues whom you haven’t seen for a while. Reach out virtually. Even if you’re on Zoom all day at work, take a few minutes and check on a loved one. And listen. When someone sounds anxious or upset, pay attention.
Take care of yourself. Exercise. Eat well. Practice moderation. If you need help, call your health plan and see what services are available. Or contact NAMI at: email@example.com or 1-800-950-NAMI
As panelists agreed during the seminar, the more we talk about mental health, the more it reduces any stigma. It’s OK not to be OK. The time is now — and long overdue — to confront the looming mental health crisis.
— Pamela Stallsmith