Americans describe the momentous mental health toll of the pandemic

Two years into the pandemic, concerns about COVID-19's impact on mental health continue to grow. We spoke to people across the country about their particular struggles and the work being done to help others suffering during the pandemic. And Dr. Tom Insel, who served as the director of the National Institute of Mental Health, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss what can be done.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Two years into the pandemic, concerns about COVID-19's impact on mental health continue to grow.

    We spoke with people across the country about their particular struggles, and the work being done to help others suffering during the pandemic.

    Here is some of what they told us.

  • Jason Wu, California:

    : My name is Jason Wu. I work in the Bay Area of California, and I am a private practice psychologist.

    One of my specialties is trauma. So, a lot of trauma work has been done with a lot of my clients over this period of time, and it's been kind of a blessing and a curse, because we're really, finally focusing on trauma. But then you also don't have the social support that's really important to healing trauma.

  • Channea Curley, Texas:

    My name is Channea Curley. I live in Houston, Texas. I am a stay-at-home mom. I have three children, all in elementary school, and two of my kiddos have autism.

    We went on spring break. And we were in San Antonio when they started shutting down cities. And I had a major — I had a major anxiety attack.

  • Andy Huchingson, South Carolina:

    I'm Andy Huchingson. I'm a psychiatrist. I live in Charleston, South Carolina.

    I'm supposed to know how to deal with this, how to navigate it, how to do the right things, how to meditate, how to run, how to take care of myself, so that I don't experience depression. And yet there are times, even when you know all of the things, that you may still struggle with depression, as I have.

  • Jason Wu:

    I think what was different was that I felt like, after all this happened, like in Atlanta, with the really horrible tragedy that happened there, I just saw an influx of Asian clients in general.

    I guess it's like made aware of the fact that, yes, mental health is a real thing. It's OK for Asian Americans to seek that out. It's — there's a lot of cultural stigma with that, too.

  • Channea Curley:

    I ended up calling my therapist, and I was like, hey, I'm having a hard time. Like, mid-March, after things had shut down.

    I was like, I really think that this is going to be a problem. She gave me some meditation strategies, and she said now might be the time that we need a psychiatrist.

  • Andy Huchingson:

    So, before COVID, I was sort of thriving.

    I was teaching mindfulness groups, and that switched to online, and kind of petered out. And my motivation to do that kind of went away. I was exercising. I was gardening a lot. I was a voracious reader, so I ordered more books than I could — I could get through, just because I loved having books.

    And I noticed some of those things started dropping away. And I noticed I was sitting on the couch more, and I was finding myself sort of apathetic about all these things that I was passionate about. And it struck me.And I was like, what's going on? Like, have I just lost interest in everything?

  • Jason Wu:

    I have seen a lot of people who've dealt with depression, definitely, like, isolation, which kind of breeds a lot of that. We're meant to be social, anxiety, for sure.

    I mean, there's a lot of clients that have had — that have OCD. This whole pandemic has been really triggering for them.

  • Channea Curley:

    She gave me the contact information for a psychiatrist, and I called her and I met with her virtually.

    And she was like, yes, we're going to we're going to take some medicine for this, and then when this whole pandemic thing dies down, then you can — you can — we can wean you off.

    And I was like, OK, that's great, because it should be over soon, right?

    And so, here we are, two years in and a second prescription for anxiety meds.

  • Andy Huchingson:

    I have had to invest in more money in sort of taking care of myself. I have reached out to my own psychiatrist to get the help that I need to — the support that I needed, and created sort of a team of supporters for myself. I have reached out to my friends and let them know I have been struggling at times.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we want to thank each one of you for sharing your stories with us.

    And now to focus on what can be done to address and improve mental health care in America, I spoke recently with Dr. Tom Insel. From 2002 to 2015, he served as director of the National Institute of Mental Health. He's the author of a new book, "Healing: Our Path from Mental Illness to Mental Health."

    Dr. Tom Insel, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    You have been keeping a close eye on the state of people's mental health during this entire pandemic. So, hearing that people are struggling right now doesn't come as a surprise, does it?

    Dr. Tom Insel, Former Director, National Institute of Mental Health: It's hardly a surprise.

    This has been a tough couple of years for the nation, for the world. And you see it most in people who might have been struggling even before the pandemic. To have a mental health crisis is not new. It was there in 2019. But it's more apparent, and I think there's just a lot more despair going into 2022, and now starting the third year of this very difficult time.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you wrote this book in large part because you are openly alarmed at the fact that this country, in your view, is so poorly equipped to deal with depression, anxiety, all forms of mental illness, not just — as you said, not just during the pandemic, but all the time right now.

  • Dr. Tom Insel:

    Well, when I started my career, I think we were doing a better job. I wouldn't say that about very many areas of medicine, but, in mental health, 40 years ago, 45 years ago, we had a broad community-based support system. We had a safety net.

    We had a lot of services available, particularly for people who had the most serious forms of mental illness, schizophrenia, bipolar illness, severe depression. We were prepared, and we were there to serve. In the words of President Kennedy, they need no longer be alien to our affections.

    We have lost that. And we have lost that over many decades, and we have lost it in a way which means that, too often, people with serious mental illness end up in the criminal justice system, and not the health care system. That's unacceptable.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And it's not as if people haven't been paying attention to this. And, as we point out, you, yourself, you were leading the country's institute, the National Institute of Mental Health, for, what, 13 years, from, what, 2002 to 2015.

    You surely were looking at these problems then.

  • Dr. Tom Insel:

    We were.

    But the National Institute of Mental Health does a spectacular job of research, and they go after the science of mental health. The problem here, the problem of incarceration, of homelessness, of early mortality for people with serious mental illness, that's actually not so much a scientific problem, and that was the discovery of my book.

    The book, I was trying to figure out, why, with so much progress in science, have we seen increases in suicide, increases in overdose deaths, increases in morbidity and mortality for people with mental illness? And the answer is not in the science. It's not even in the care system.

    It's in the lack of a safety net. It's in the ways in which we do not provide for those people who can't provide for themselves. And that's the big tragedy, because we know what to do. We can help people with these illnesses. We have good treatments. We don't need to research that part.

    But we need to implement the sorts of treatments that NIMH and others have developed, so that people can recover. And they can, if we do this right.But we're not doing it right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what did that mean, to implement? I mean, what exactly are some of the things that, in your view, need to happen now?

  • Dr. Tom Insel:

    Well, to some extent, you have to fix a broken health care system.

    And that means ending a lot of the fragmentation in the way that people are paid for what I call a crisis-driven sick care system, not for a health care system, so changing the incentives in our care system. But, you know, the thing that I think I learned most in working on this book was, if we really care about mental health, it's about more than mental health care. We have to think beyond health care.

    We have to think about what I call the three P's, people, place, and purpose, how we help people with these disorders to actually build a life. That's not about which medication you're on or what psychotherapy you're getting. It's about that, of course, that you need the medical care, but you also need — you need the social supports. You need a safe place to recover.

    You need, actually, all of those services that give you something to live for. We aren't doing that. At least, we're not doing that at scale. We're doing that in places. We need to do that far better as a nation, if we want to see people with mental illness truly recover.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And for people who are watching, Tom Insel, who say, OK, I'd like to help in some way, what can individuals — is there anything individuals can do?

  • Dr. Tom Insel:

    There's a lot you can do.

    I mean, a part of what we need to do is to create the kind of community that's been missing, and I have to say that this involves all of us. It's not just about those people who have schizophrenia or bipolar illness. It's about all of us. It's a measure of who we are.

    We once did this. We used to have the kind of social fabric and the social services and the safety net that we have allowed to really get shredded. So part of what I'm talking about is political action. And I think we need a social movement for mental health, which is what I'm trying to start with this book, very much the way that Vice President Gore tried to start the movement for climate with "Inconvenient Truth."

    This is "The Inconvenient Truth" for the mental health crisis.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Tom Insel.

    The book is "Healing: Our Path from Mental Illness to Mental Health."

    Thank you very much.

  • Dr. Tom Insel:

    Thanks for having me, Judy.

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