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COVID’s Underlying Crisis

Findings published today by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) reveal that the COVID-19 pandemic is leading to a rise in mental illness that’s a startling 26.7 percentage point increase from last year. “Average biweekly data for October 2020,” reveals the KFF, “found that 37.7% of adults in the U.S. reported symptoms of anxiety and/or depressive disorder, up from 11.0% in 2019.”

And so we are faced with the great underlying crisis of the coronavirus pandemic.

Mental Health: An Underlying Crisis

These statistics are no surprise to public health officials. In May 2020, the United Nations opened their Policy Brief: COVID-19 and the Need for Action on Mental Health by stating, “[a]lthough the COVID-19 crisis is, in the first instance, a physical health crisis, it has the seeds of a major mental health crisis as well, if action is not taken.”

Rightfully distracted from almost all else that’s happening in the world around us, we’ve been so focused on the physical health of individuals throughout this pandemic that we’ve largely neglected mental well-being. A failure to recognize and address rising mental health challenges, however, could have lasting damage.

Notably, the overall death toll of this already deadly pandemic will likely rise. As of yesterday, the COVID Tracking Project noted that 241,704 people in the U.S. have died after being infected with COVID-19. This growing number will increase even further due to deaths of despair. A recent analysis by the Well Being Trust & The Robert Graham Center approximates that, by 2029, “as many as 75,000 more people will die from drug or alcohol misuse and suicide” attributed to the pandemic. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, suicide is currently the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, and 2nd among individuals between the ages of 10 and 34. But these are pre-pandemic rates. Deaths of despair increase measurably with economic downturn, loss of health coverage, and a drop in ones support network—all of which are effects we’re seeing as a result of the pandemic. So not only are lives being claimed by the virus, even more lives will be lost as “collateral damage.”

In an ideal world, such deaths would never happen. Yet still, even if that could be achieved, the everyday impacts of mental health disorders are broad ranging. For instance, below is a sampling of just a few of the ripple effects, as pulled from a summary by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI):

Health/Health System Impacts

People with depression have a 40% higher risk of developing cardiovascular and metabolic diseases than the general population.

19.3% of U.S. adults with mental illness also experienced a substance use disorder in 2018 (9.2 million individuals).

Mood disorders are the most common cause of hospitalization for all people in the U.S. under age 45 (after excluding hospitalization relating to pregnancy and birth).

Community Impacts

Mental illness and substance use disorders are involved in 1 out of every 8 emergency department visits by a U.S. adult (estimated 12 million visits).

20.1% of people experiencing homelessness in the U.S. have a serious mental health condition.

37% of adults incarcerated in the state and federal prison system have a diagnosed mental illness.

Youth Impacts

High school students with significant symptoms of depression are more than twice as likely to drop out compared to their peers.

70.4% of youth in the juvenile justice system have a diagnosed mental illness.

Economic and Labor Force Impacts

Across the U.S. economy, serious mental illness causes $193.2 billion in lost earnings each year

At pre-pandemic rates, mental health disorders cost the global economy $1 trillion annually in lost productivity.

Making Matters Worse

When considering all of these statistics, it’s critical to acknowledge two things: first, that the impacts are felt disproportionately among particular populations; and, second, that these figures all relate to pre-pandemic analyses. As already noted, the pandemic will likely amplify the conditions which contribute to the development of mental illnesses, such as isolation, lack of mental health services, and social unease or unrest.


You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. This is quite noticeable now, as even those of us with once-robust social networks have had this support pulled out from under us. To help prevent the spread of the virus, people are choosing or being instructed to isolate themselves from others. Instantly, our support networks disappeared. We’re no longer able to hug our mothers, our fathers, our best friends. It’s likely that many of us haven’t even seen our loved ones outside of through a device screen. Without a social network, we lack meaningful relationships and are likely to develop feelings of loneliness. This is nothing to brush off. Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad found that “lack of social connection heightens health risks as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or having alcohol use disorder,” and “that loneliness and social isolation are twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity” (Perspectives on Psychological Science, Vol. 10, No. 2, 2015, as cited by APA.org).

Lack of Mental Health Services

Access to mental health care was already severely inequitable before the coronavirus crisis, writes the Center for American Progress. The healthcare system in America has been failing to meet the mental healthcare needs of many. But now, a recent World Health Organization survey revealed that the pandemic has either disrupted or halted critical mental health services in 93% of countries worldwide—all while demand for mental healthcare is increasing.

This is, of course, assuming that an individual still has access to mental healthcare services. Whereas we know many are losing healthcare coverage due to pandemic-related unemployment.

Social Unease and Unrest

In many places throughout the world, distress is being amplified by system national issues, attributed to anything from war-stricken conflict zones, police brutality, or volatile political climates. As if the general dismay brought on by rising unemployment rates, social isolation, and the abrupt need to adapt to a new normal weren’t enough, people are feeling even greater senses of fear, stress, anxiety, and worry that ares only made worse by mistrust in government, the spread of misinformation, and careless, volatile leaders.

What’s There To Do About It

When combined, the global health crisis, political crisis, and rising mental health crisis are becoming the perfect storm for national disaster. Can we weather it?

Here are a few tips for how we can, as a community, find resilience in mental wellness.

Seek a Sense of Calm

Though it is undoubtedly a difficult thing to do right now, calming our worries, and reducing stress and anxiety will help protect us from the negative mental health impacts of the pandemic. For strategies, we can start with this article by the Yale Medicine.

This will only be successful if we’re honest about our own mental wellness. It’s important that we feel empowered to seek professional help when needed. Which means must de-stigmatize mental illness. If we’ve learned anything from the observations above, it’s that mental illness has been increasingly more common for years now and it will almost certainly rise into the future. It’s okay to admit we’re not okay—in fact, it’s kind of expected right now.

Connect People to One Another

By any socially-distanced means necessary, let’s find ways to connect with our personal support networks. We all can additionally help others connect with social supports. Reach out to neighbors, co-workers, and others who were perhaps not a part of your network previously, and help them find the social supports that they need.

Get People the Help They Need

And when the task is beyond the capability of one’s social network, we must help people get the support they need. Many people struggle to reach out for support. And even when they do, NAMI reports that there’s typically a delay in seeking treatment, at an average of 11 years after onset of symptoms (NAMI, Mental Health by the Numbers). Which means we could be coping with the mental health impacts of COVID for decades to come! From here on out, we must commit ourselves to helping others.

If you or someone you know is in an emergency, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or call 911 immediately.

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