Chintada: The pandemic’s lasting effect on mental health

Latavya Chintada, Contributing Columnist

We all are well aware of the physical impact of the COVID-19 virus: shortness of breath, loss of taste and smell, and a fever. However, something less talked about—and arguably more devastating—is the mental and emotional impact of the pandemic. 

Before the onset of this pandemic, 20 percent of adults in America experienced mental illness. Now, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that over 40 percent of adults in America are struggling with mental health or substance use, based on a study conducted in late June 2020. With a 100 percent increase, there’s no doubt that mental health is declining all over the country due to the global pandemic and recent events. Additionally, these statistics were significantly higher among demographics which are disproportionately affected by the pandemic, such as young adults, essential workers and racial and ethnic minorities. 

The universal decline in mental health can be a result of a multitude of consequences from the pandemic. COVID-19 spikes, millions of infected individuals and fear-mongering by the media has led to a general elevated anxiety amongst individuals. Additionally, job insecurity has increased anxiety amongst adults and recent college graduates. 

Moreover, because of social distancing procedures, we are distant from our loved ones, causing feelings of loneliness and depression to grow during this time. 

If a loved one passes away due to COVID-19, not being able to be near them at the time of death can severely hinder the grieving process and make it harder for people to cope with the loss. Asian-Americans and other minority groups have also experienced feelings of ostracization and anxiety due to the increased racism they face during this pandemic. If all this is not sufficient cause for mental health issues, the advanced pace of remote learning combined with all of these situations has led to student burn-out and depression. 

Some mental health disorders are currently growing more than others. With significantly less in-person social interaction, individuals who have suffered from eating disorders are starting to relapse in quarantine. In fact, NPR reports that hotline calls to the National Eating Disorders Association have gone up by 70 to 80 percent. This could be attributed to a myriad of factors, one of them being food insecurity and scarcity. The pandemic has removed all sense of structure and in-person support from our daily lives. Additionally, living in a pandemic has induced collective trauma, which could further exacerbate any pre-existing mental health conditions. 

New mental health conditions have also arisen, specifically post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) affecting our frontline workers. Healthcare workers on the front lines are experiencing PTSD symptoms and burnout as a result of treating an influx of infected people. Many intensive care units are at almost maximum capacity, and hospitals are straining to accommodate everyone in need. As a result, some hospitals—especially those in more populous cities and COVID-19 epicenters—have had to decide who receives resources and ventilators. This burdensome ethical decision is definitely not an easy one to make. With healthcare workers suffering from PTSD, many are leaving the field in pursuit of comfort and stability to cope with their trauma. Hospitals are facing a massive health staffing shortage, which is continuing this never-ending cycle of maximum capacity hospitals and traumatized workers. 

While working vaccines have been developed to protect against the physical aspects of COVID-19, there is no prevention or cure for its emotional and mental health consequences.

Fortunately, we live in an age of technology, and we are still able to keep in touch with friends and family through video conferencing, calling or texting. Social media has kept us all connected with each other in one way or another, and we are still able to remotely do regular activities, such as learning, shopping or even holding an online concert. Telehealth and telecounseling services have become more crucial than ever, as many people are able to get adequate diagnoses and treatments from home.

The pandemic’s grave impact on everyone’s emotional and mental wellbeing can be said to affect more people than its overall physical impact. It seems that the emotional baggage from the pandemic is weighing everyone down, regardless of race, age, background or even previous exposure to COVID-19. 

Thus, it is important for all of us to take care of ourselves and the people around us. We can do so by wearing our masks, social distancing and actively engaging in self-care activities, such as exercising, reading or listening to music. 

It is also important to take a break from reading or watching the news from time to time, as it can sometimes be upsetting and anxiety-inducing. Make sure to take full advantage of any hotlines, online counseling services such as CWRU Care or student-led mental health apps such as CWRU Unmasked. 

It is critical to stay connected with your friends, loved ones and community during this continuously challenging time.