The precautions we’ve taken to quell the coronavirus pandemic—sheltering in place, social distancing, not spending much time with people outside our own households—have exacerbated America’s mental health crisis.
The Coronavirus Pandemic's Toll on Mental Health
Published: May 11, 2021
Crystal Burwell: Mental health is a epidemic in itself. And so we should treat that with the same sense of urgency long as we do the pandemic.
Narrator: Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of adults coping with mental health disorders has increased significantly.
Burwell: The nature of COVID is, you know, shelter in place, social distancing and not being able to really spend much time with family support systems. So that has really exacerbated what was already there. Just even lack of sunlight, being confined at home where there might be stressors.
Narrator: Depression and mania can lead to worsened social isolation, especially when compounded by stress, let alone a global pandemic.
Michael Buatti: If you look at Atlas, he's the god, of course, he used to hold the whole world up and you know people with bipolar already have that world on top of them to add COVID-19 is like adding a whole other world on top and it's actually two worlds, two Earths, right?
Jennifer Freese: I would have meltdowns. I would be happy one minute crying the next. And it came on very very suddenly.
Narrator: Jennifer Freese has been coping with her bipolar since she was six years old. She’s now in her 40s, and she got COVID-19 the day before it was declared a global pandemic.
Freese: I didn't tell anybody that I had COVID-19. It's very similar to like when you tell someone you're bipolar and they're like, “Oh my gosh, you're bipolar.” They get scared, like what do you have to be afraid of with me?
Narrator: Suicidal ideation has worsened during the pandemic. And those with chronic illnesses are more vulnerable to higher levels of stress, anxiety, and depression.
Burwell: Shouldn't have to wait until people are dying before we are really highlighting and talking about something that's so important…
Narrator: Things like university and office closures, and economic downturns have contributed to people’s anxiety, depression, and worry.
Buatti: Feeling bad about yourself has gone through the roof just as an example, you know, we have a 24 x 7 hotline right now and since the pandemic, those calls has risen by 80%.
Narrator: And it’s not just this hotline. There’s been a rise in people seeking treatment for mental health since the start of the pandemic nationally. One study found reports of anxiety and depression surged from 11% in 2019 to 41% in 2021.
It may not just be from stress. There’s also evidence that COVID infection itself is associated with neurologic damage that might contribute to mental health disorders.
Now, some people who have been coping with mental health conditions for many years may actually be able to bounce back more easily than those who’ve never faced such a challenge.
Buatti: the people with a mental health condition are probably the most resilient people you'll ever want to meet...they've come through the most troubling of times.
Narrator: After developing COVID, Jennifer Freese self-quarantined for a month. Coping techniques she learned over the years to treat her bipolar disorder helped her manage the isolation.
Freese: I made it a point to reach out to three people every single day.
Narrator: For those struggling with bipolar, there are additional coping mechanisms. Basic things like remaining on a schedule and not self-isolating can be helpful, especially during the pandemic.
Ellen Forney: If you eat well, see your doctor, or stick to your therapy, mindfulness meditation exercise, routine, support system and that all of those things together are integrated and it's important that we consider all of those things and not just therapy, or certainly not just medications.
I think that the people who I know who are really struggling most are the people that this is new to or the people that are new to recognizing that their routine needs to be different or recognizing that staying in sweatpants all day and on and off napping all day is going to affect your mood.
Narrator: Those seeking treatment, however, may not have equal access. The pandemic has shed light on inequities people face when receiving care and support.
Forney: Some of us have more resources than others of us and whether it's because we're white or because we have a financial support or emotional support. All of these things are making it really clear that there's a big difference in those people who have resources and those who don’t and that's very, very true in mental health always and it's especially true now.
Burwell: Access to medication and even affordability of medication has become an issue, not being able to get out of the house and then with loss of employment which is very common. I'm seeing a lot with my clients is that it's a loss of health insurance so that causes so many different problems.
Narrator: The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare that we are in the middle of a mental health crisis.
Burwell: Why would we not want to take care of our mental health? That should be a priority
Produced by: Amanda Willis
Narration: Emily Zendt
Production Assistance: Christina Monnen, Emily Zendt, and Ari Daniel
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2021