COVID Long Haulers – COVID-19 and Mental Health

A largely overlooked aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic is the negative affect it has had on people’s mental health. Additionally, the virus has created new barriers for those already dealing with mental illness or substance abuse issues. Roughly 4 in 10 US adults have reported experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic whereas 1 in 10 reported these prior to the outbreak. July 2020 data from KFF Health Tracking Poll showed that many adults also reported specific issues negatively impacting their mental health including trouble sleeping, lack of appetite, increased alcohol consumption, and substance abuse.
This article will examine how COVID-19 has affected mental health during the pandemic as well as the populations most at risk of suffering negative consequences as a result.

Prevalence of Mental Illness During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Concerns about mental health, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation have grown during the coronavirus pandemic. Based on US Census Bureau figures from January 2021, symptoms of depression and/or anxiety were reported in 41% of adults, a figure that remained largely unchanged since spring 2020. Studies have also shown rises in COVID-related substance abuse and suicidal thoughts as the pandemic wears on. And data from March to May 2020 showed a pronounced increase in drug overdose deaths, a timeframe which coincided with the beginning of COVID-related lockdowns.

Prior to the pandemic, adults with poor overall health (physical and mental) reported higher rates of depression and/or anxiety than those who were healthier. This trend has continued during the pandemic particularly for people with existing chronic illnesses. In fact, KFF Health Tracking Poll data has shown that 18% of people diagnosed with COVID-19, including those with no prior psychiatric diagnosis, were later found to have a mental health issue like anxiety or depression. And because of their vulnerability to severe illness from COVID-19, the elderly have experienced higher levels of depression and anxiety during the pandemic.

Why is Mental Health Affected by the Pandemic?

There are numerous reasons why the pandemic could affect mental health, but the widespread social isolation related to safety protocols is likely one of the biggest factors. Significant research has demonstrated that loneliness and social isolation are linked to both poor physical and mental health. Loneliness is also linked to reduced lifespans as well as physical and mental illnesses. In March 2020, shortly after shelter-in-place orders were mandated, KFF polling data showed that those staying at home were more likely to report COVID-related stress or worry that negatively impacted their mental health.

Populations Most at Risk for COVID Related Mental Health Issues

COVID-19 can affect anyone, but certain populations are at a higher risk of experiencing mental health challenges and could have challenges accessing treatment.

Young Adults

Depression, anxiety, trouble sleeping, and suicidal thoughts have all increased during the pandemic for many young adults (age 18-24). University closures, the transition to working remotely, and the loss of employment could all contribute to the negative mental health issues young adults face as a result of the pandemic.

Data suggests that young adults report higher incidents of mental health related issues than older adults. Household Pulse Survey data from December 2020 showed that 56% of young adults reported symptoms of depression and/or anxiety whereas 39% of adults over age 25 reported these symptoms. Figures also show that 25% of young adults reported starting or increasing substance use during COVID compared to 13% for all adults. Suicidal ideation was also higher in young adults with 26% reporting these thoughts vs 11% for all adults.

Adults Experiencing Income Insecurity or Job Loss

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people around the country lost their incomes or employment. The mental health of adults experiencing job or income loss has naturally been affected with symptoms of depression and/or anxiety being reported at higher rates than adults who did not experience job loss. Polling data shows that mental health was negatively impacted for those experiencing job or income loss due to the stress or worry about the pandemic.

Along with depression and anxiety, job loss could contribute to other negative mental health issues like substance abuse and suicide. A poll conducted in July 2020 showed that households that lost employment or income, were more likely to report at least one adverse mental health issue than households that did not. Difficulty sleeping, lack of appetite, and increased alcohol or substance use, were amongst the issues reported.

Those with lower incomes were also found to be more likely to report significant adverse mental health impacts due to stress or anxiety regarding COVID-19. December 2020 KFF Tracking Poll data found that 35% of people earning under $40,000 reported significant mental health issues whereas 17% of people making $90,000 or more reported issues.

Parents and Children

In response to the pandemic, many childcare centers and schools across the country closed and temporarily switched to virtual learning. The daily routines of children and parents were disrupted and changed as a result of these closures. As such, both children and parents have reported worsening mental health since the pandemic began. In particular, female parents have a higher likelihood than males do of reporting declining mental health.

As was the case prior to the pandemic, women have been more apt to reporting mental health issues than men during the pandemic. Over 25% of women reported they were thinking about reducing their hours or leaving their jobs with many blaming household responsibilities and burnout as the main factors.

For adolescents with existing mental illnesses, the pandemic could exacerbate their conditions. The pandemic could cause children mental distress because of social isolation, disruption to daily routine, and household stress and with schools largely closed, many will not have access to vital mental health services they previously did. Child abuse may also be on the rise during the pandemic which can lead to immediate psychological and emotional problems. And because educators play a vital role in identifying and reporting child abuse, school closures and shelter-in-place mandates likely mean that many instances go undetected.

What is a Covid 19 Long Hauler?