How Does COVID Affect Mental Health?

BY SANDRA GUY

Health professionals know they face an unprecedented post-COVID crisis.

The World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed in March that 90 percent of countries surveyed said they plan to include mental health and psycho-social support in their COVID-19 response plans, but major gaps and concerns remain.

The pandemic’s first year marked a 25 percent increase in the prevalence of anxiety and depression throughout the world, WHO’s scientific brief concluded.

“This is a wake-up call to all countries to pay more attention to mental health and do a better job of supporting their populations’ mental health,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s director general.

The key stressors were literally life threatening: Loneliness, fear of infection, suffering and death for oneself and for loved ones, grief after bereavement and financial worries, as well as social isolation and the resulting constraints on people’s ability to work, seek support from loved ones and engage in their communities.

WHO’s findings highlighted that young people are disproportionally at risk of suicidal and self-harming behaviors, and that women have been more severely impacted than men.

Further, people with pre-existing physical health conditions, such as asthma, cancer and heart disease, were more likely to develop symptoms of mental disorders.

Other research shows that 13 percent of adolescents reported having a major depressive episode in 2019 — prior to COVID’s expansion — a 60 percent increase from 12 years earlier, in 2007, according to the National Survey of Children’s Health.

Though much is made about the impact of social media, federal research shows that teenagers as a group are also getting less sleep and less exercise and spending less in-person time with friends.

The combined result for some adolescents is a kind of cognitive implosion: anxiety, depression, compulsive behaviors, self-harm and even suicide.

Yet for much of the pandemic, services for mental, neurological and substance use conditions were the most disrupted among all essential health services reported by WHO Member States. Many countries also reported major disruptions in life-saving services for mental health, including for suicide prevention.

Help is increasingly available via Zoom telehealth, apps and other online resources.

And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges tried and true methods of coping with stress, including meditation, exercise, eating a healthy diet, refraining from alcohol, smoking and drug use, and turning to people you trust or to a professional for help.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month—an opportunity for everyone to reflect on the effects COVID-19 has had on our mental health and well-being. The American Hospital Association, among others, has developed new resources, including webinars, podcasts, case studies and other materials that offer strategies for recovering physical and mental health and energy.

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