In an April 2021 Director’s Message, Dr. Joshua Gordon, Director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), cited a 2020 CDC report that showed mental health and substance abuse rates were nearly double what was expected before the COVID-19 pandemic. The outbreak and related public health measures continue to have a profound impact on mental health, even as falling rates of infection and hospitalization suggest the worst may be behind us. Explore this guide to learn more about statistics, resources, and tips on mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mental Health and COVID-19 Statistics

Significant environmental events can play a major role in the mental health of individuals, population groups, and entire communities. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and related mental health crises, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health.

Statistics on Mental Health Issues

According to the CDC, adults in the United States faced elevated adverse mental health conditions associated with COVID-19. The CDC also reports that racial and ethnic minorities, unpaid caregivers, younger adults, and essential workers were disproportionately affected.

According to a survey conducted by the CDC, the number of individuals with symptoms of depression or anxiety reached 31 percent in June 2020. Approximately 11 percent of respondents reported having suicidal thoughts. 

The report also found that 13 percent of respondents had either started or increased substance use in the 30 days prior to the survey. Approximately 26 percent of respondents reported symptoms of stress-related disorders.

There is evidence that mental health challenges continued to increase throughout the pandemic. According to the Household Pulse Survey, the rate of depressive and/or anxiety disorders was 41.1 percent in 2021. This is a significant increase from the approximately 11 percent rate that was reported by the NHIS in 2019.

Populations Impacted

While a significant number of the entire population was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, many groups were disproportionately affected or affected in unique ways. According to a World Health Organization (WHO) survey, more than 60 percent of 130 countries surveyed  faced disruptions to mental health services for vulnerable people groups. These groups included women who required antenatal or postnatal services, older adults, children and adolescents.

The CDC found that, while the overall increase in substance abuse, suicidal thoughts, and depression increased, these figures were even higher for Hispanic and Black persons. Approximately 40.3 percent of Hispanic adults reported symptoms of depression, compared to the 28.6 percent across all respondents. Only 24.5 percent of Black adults in the United States felt comfortable reporting stress and concern regarding the mental health of loved ones, compared with 39.3 percent of white adults.

Healthcare workers and frontline workers also face significant mental health challenges due to COVID-19. Mental Health America (MHA) reported that 93 percent of healthcare worker survey respondents felt stretched too thin and stressed out in 2020. Approximately 45 percent of nurses felt they didn’t receive adequate emotional support.

The American Psychological Association (APA) reported that Gen Z was the generation whose mental health was most impacted by the pandemic, with 46 percent of Gen Z adults reporting worsened mental health conditions. Only 28 percent of Boomers, 31 percent of Millennials, and 33 percent of Gen Xers reported worsening conditions.

How COVID-19 Impacts Mental Health

The CDC covers many ways in which the pandemic has caused stress and mental health issues. Explore the many ways that COVID-19 can impact mental health and what these impacts may look like in your life or the lives of your loved ones.

Mental Health Issues and Impacts

Depression and anxiety are the most significant mental health impacts caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Dr. Nathaniel N. Ivers, Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Counseling, Wake Forest University. Dr. Ivers also cites the increased frequency and severity of substance use and behavioral addictions: 

“For some, addictions increased because people were not able to engage in in-person 12-step programs or other treatments for their addictions. For others, substance use increased as a way to cope with feelings of loneliness, hopelessness, anxiety and despair.”

These mental health issues can be caused or exacerbated by several events and situations related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are some key ways the pandemic caused or worsened mental health issues, according to Dr. Ivers:

  • Biologically: Some individuals who have contracted COVID-19 experience lingering symptoms of “brain fog” and fatigue. These symptoms can create a sense of listlessness that make it difficult for people to carry out activities, such as exercise or intellectually stimulating endeavors, that are related to holistic wellness.
  • Psychologically: The protracted nature of the pandemic and its serious effects have resulted in thought patterns in some individuals that contribute to feelings of helplessness and despair.
  • Socially: COVID-19, especially in its early stages, has increased the literal distance between friends and family members.
  • Politically: The political divide associated with mask mandates and vaccinations has also created symbolic divides between some individuals and their “friends” or family members.”
  • Emotionally: With over 900,000 deaths associated with COVID-19 in the United States, this pandemic has created a great deal of bereavement. Compounding the situation is that many people are not able to participate in customary rituals for honoring deceased loved ones (e.g. funeral services) in the way that they would have wanted to, creating additional heartache and pain and, in some instances, complicated grief.

Recognizing Mental Health Issues and Tips for Improving Mental Health During COVID-19

Understanding the signs of mental health issues in yourself and those around you is the first step to improving mental health conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Recognizing Signs of Mental Health Issues

According to Dr. Ivers, many different signs point to mental health issues. These signs can vary depending on culture, personality, and personal mental health vulnerabilities, among other factors.

Look for changes in these areas as signs that you or a loved one may be at risk of mental health issues related to COVID-19:

  • Mood: Individuals could experience forgetfulness, aggressiveness, irritability and emotional lability.
  • Behavioral patterns: Significant pattern changes as a result of the pandemic include avoiding opportunities to connect or interact with others, both strangers and loved ones.
  • Appetite and sleep patterns: Some individuals may experience excessive eating or constricted eating. Individuals may struggle to get out of bed, experience difficulties falling asleep or oversleeping.

Tips for Improving Mental Health During COVID-19

These signs and symptoms should be treated seriously. Thankfully, there are many ways that you or someone you know may work toward improved mental health during COVID-19. Here are some tips recommended by Dr. Ivers:

  • Create a structured, reasonable plan for routine physical activity.
  • Create a plan for social engagements.
  • Review personal, daily activities that may increase or decrease feelings of anxiety and depression. Work to adjust your daily schedule to alter your time spent in these activities.
  • Explore or re-engage in religious and/or spiritual activities that are meaningful to you. These can include organized activities, mindfulness meditations or prayer.
  • Don’t dwell on negative thoughts or feelings alone. Reach out to loved ones, family members, your primary care provider and/or a psychological professional for support.
  • Create a plan for experiences and accomplishments you wish to be a part of your life in the next six months, five years, etc. Consider tracking your progress in a journal.
  • Start or return to a new creative activity, such as painting, woodworking or playing a musical instrument.

Other Tips for Promoting Good Mental Health During COVID-19

There are many ways to promote good mental health when coping with the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak or other traumatic events. The following tips can help you cultivate positive, healthy mental habits in different areas of your life.

Personal Life

Start with your inner life and how you care for your body:

  • Spend time every day focusing on positive thoughts, such as inspiring stories or positive aspects of your personal life.
  • Practice breathing techniques.
  • Be sure to schedule the proper amount of sleep.
  • Focus on a healthy diet that incorporates good practices such as these healthy eating tips recommended by the CDC.

Family and Social Life

You may be able to make a difference in the mental health of your friends and family. Explore these ways you can reconnect with loved ones and help them through emotional difficulties:

  • Explore in-person or digital opportunities to continue to meet with friends, family members and community groups that used to be part of your regular schedule.
  • Take a moment to send an encouraging message or have a positive conversation with someone you know.
  • Be sure your friends and family also have professional support. Reach out to mental health professionals, like the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, if someone you know is considering suicide or experiencing other traumatic emotions.

Work Life

Your work life may have experienced dramatic changes during the pandemic. According to the Gallup Poll, 45 percent of full-time U.S. employees were working remotely in September 2021. A significant number of workers were laid off or had their roles altered considerably during the pandemic. Here are some tips that can help you promote positive mental health in your work life:

  • Strive for a positive work-life balance. Talk to your employer about additional responsibilities or hours that may be causing undue stress.
  • Request a flexible schedule to create room to help your friends and family through mental health challenges.
  • Remove distractions and set up a separate workspace if working from home.
  • Consider listening to music when working from home.
  • Remember to take periodic breaks to avoid burnout.

COVID-19 Mental Health Resources

Headspace App: Compare this mindfulness and sleep app with Calm to see which one offers you the best resources and encouragement.

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