Mental Toll of Pandemic Will Leave Long-Term Mark

As of February 1, 443,000 people in the United States have died from COVID-19 complications — more than the population of Minneapolis. By the end of February, that number is expected to cross the half-million mark.

That’s difficult to wrap your head around, and even as hope is on the horizon in the form of vaccines, a slowing positivity rate, and a decrease in hospitalizations, the toll of the pandemic will be felt for years to come. Individuals and families coping with the loss of loved ones, their jobs, or their financial futures will need time to find footing in their new reality.

As with many traumatic events, the weight of the experience often isn’t felt until far down the road. And as so many struggle to process their collective world being turned upside down over the past 11 months, the mental and emotional fallout of the pandemic will take a while to emerge.

“The past year has been terribly damaging to our collective mental health,” Michelle Williams, dean of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said while participating in a late January panel discussion about the pandemic’s long-term effects. “There is no vaccine for mental illness.”

While age plays a major role in determining the likelihood of a person having significant physical effects related to COVID-19, it has worked somewhat in reverse as it relates to mental health.

More than a third (37%) of Americans ages 18-24 reported having thoughts of death and suicide, and almost half (47%) displayed at least moderate symptoms of depression, according to a November State of the Nation report from Harvard Medical School, Rutgers – New Brunswick, Northeastern, Harvard, and Northwestern universities. Those numbers are about 10 times the rate observed in the general population prior to the pandemic.

That report also found that symptoms such as mild or moderate depression, generalized anxiety, and disrupted sleep are somewhat higher among women than among men, which lined up with findings before COVID-19 entered our lives. Sleep disruption saw the greatest gender gap tilted toward women.

“Historically, we know that pandemics and other public health crises, much like natural disasters, have a lasting impact,” said Itai Danovitch, M.D., chair of the department of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles.

Danovitch’s team is paying particular attention to how COVID-19 impacts those who have existing mental health conditions and those who have limited access to care, such as those who don’t have health insurance or people whose home situations make attending virtual events difficult or impossible.

As we near a full year since this crisis was declared a pandemic and continue to learn about the short-term impact on our mental health, it’s important to be proactive in response to the many social and emotional hurdles we’ll continue to face in the early part of 2021 and beyond. There are several attainable ways to do so.

  1. Get proper sleep

As mentioned in the State of the Nation report above, disrupted sleep is one of the most prevalent effects reported by young women during the pandemic. According to the National Sleep Foundation, adults ages 18-25 should get seven to nine hours of sleep per night.

  1. Exercise

Many people have been moving less since the pandemic began, as most gyms shuttered for a long stretch and are still considered a health risk by a large percentage of people. One British study from late 2020 found that physical activity levels have decreased by approximately 30% during the pandemic, while sitting time has increased by 30%.  Even if this means going for a walk or light jog in your neighborhood, it’s important for staying mentally and physically healthy.

  1. Eat Nutritious Foods

Being more sedentary only increases the need to be mindful of what and how we’re eating. Make sure that your diet has fruits and vegetables, proteins, and whole grains. Be careful of your intake of caffeine, sugar, and alcohol. Remember to eat with balance, moderation and variety in mind.

  1. Talk about how you feel

Losing invaluable time with friends, family, colleagues, fellow students, or academic advisers can be incredibly isolating. Get creative to make sure that these connections aren’t lost — whether that’s playing games on Zoom, going for socially distanced walks (checks the exercise box as well!), or doing online scavenger hunts with coworkers or classmates.

No matter how you feel, you’re not alone. We’re all trudging through this pandemic together, and odds are, someone in your inner circle is having similar struggles. Talking about how you feel can inspire others to do the same.

Professional help is available. Don’t be afraid to reach out and explore your options for treatment if you’re feeling depressed or anxious, having suicidal thoughts, or experiencing any type of behavioral health crisis.