The damage COVID-19 has inflicted since it became a pandemic in early March of last year is, in many ways, easily measured. Statistics that record the numbers of lives lost or percentage of the workforce unemployed can be reliable, though sometimes difficult to fathom, ways of assessing the disease’s devastating effects. One of COVID-19’s most difficult to quantify but widely felt effects has been on mental health. The pandemic has shed light on the prevalence of mental health issues like depression, anxiety and loneliness as part of the American public health landscape both during the last year and a half and in recent, pandemic-free decades.
Recent research paints a relatively consistent picture of mental health in the U.S. The National Institute of Mental Health found that in 2019, approximately one in five Americans reported living with a mental illness, ranging from mild to severe1. A separate study by KFF reports that four in 10 adults have reported experiencing anxiety or depressive disorder during the pandemic while only one in 10 reported the same in 20192. Between self-quarantine and social distancing, loneliness has also been rising during the pandemic, but it was increasing before COVID, too3. It has long been known that pandemics exacerbate mental health issues4, and the current COVID-19 pandemic is no exception.
In many ways an increase in mental health issues during a prolonged period of distancing makes sense. Access to community is one of the most important ways in which we as individuals can heal ourselves and sustain the kind of connection that is essential to long-term mental health5. A pandemic that relies on human proximity to spread frustrates our ability to create community. What is interesting—and perhaps a little surprising—about the ways we navigate increased periods of mental strife is our incredible facility for resilience. Our brains have a deeply developed ability to bend but not break in times of stress and return to positive and stable conditions6. Extra effort to maintain touch in any way possible is more important than ever as the pandemic unfolds.
To a certain extent, the simple knowledge that our minds are programmed to bounce back from periods of increased stress can be a huge help in persevering through the coming months. When social distancing and increased isolation do become less necessary, restrictions on access to community will ease, hopefully removing many of the stressors that made the last year and a half so difficult. All this being said, there are still easy, everyday ways to maintain and improve mental health.
- Exercise most days of the week, even if you can only manage a short walk7.
- Be deliberate about your exposure to the news8. It’s important to know what’s going on, but not to obsess.
- Pay special attention to the areas of your life that might be affected by a decrease in quality of mental health. Are you getting a normal amount of sleep? Have your eating or drinking habits changed significantly since last year?9.
- Telehealth can be an incredible resource in times of restricted access to in-person health care.
Finding someone who hasn’t been negatively influenced by the pandemic over the past year and a half may be an exercise in futility, but the vaccine can be a means to the end of this health crisis and the brain has a proven ability to respond positively to times of increased stress. It is important to identify and take account of the ways COVID-19 has affected our mental wellbeing, as we press on into the coming months of the pandemic.