As I discussed last week, from the outset of this pandemic, with each day filled with isolation and uncertainty, mental health issues have continued to worsen in this country. According to a Pew Research Center report, such uncertainty has accounted for one-third of Americans experiencing high levels of psychological distress during the COVID-19 outbreak.
In a more recent accounting, according to a Boston University School of Public Health study, the prevalence of sleep troubles, lethargy, feelings of hopelessness and other depression symptoms in adults across the country has more than tripled since the pandemic began. That means, as noted by Time magazine, that “three times as many Americans met criteria for a depression diagnosis during the pandemic than before it.”
In a current story published in the journal JAMA Network Open, Dr. Ruth Shim, an expert on cultural psychology at the University of California, Davis writes in a commentary that accompanies the report that researchers found that “it’s not just that more people have signs of depression, but that their symptoms have become more serious.”
While previous studies have documented upticks in depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental illnesses in the wake of traumatic events, according to the Boston University study, in the age of COVID-19, the prevalence of “severe” symptoms was 7.5 times higher than in 2017 and 2018. This statistic is of great concern “because ‘severe’ depression is linked with suicide risk and requires intensive treatment to overcome,” she writes. A separate new report from the Kaiser Family Foundation also found the growing number of U.S. adults struggling with mental health issues linked to worry and stress over the novel coronavirus increasing from 32% in March to 53% in July.
“Almost as soon as coronavirus lockdowns went into effect in March, discussion turned to mental health,” writes Time magazine’s Jamie Ducharm. Experts feared that the U.S. would face a mental health epidemic at the same time it fought a viral pandemic. Well, guess what? “The deadly pandemic and its economic consequences have been accompanied by an unprecedented increase in mental illness in the United States,” the Boston University School of Public Health study concludes.
As noted in an American Medical Association report, it is more important than ever for people to examine their mental well-being; recognize when they may feel anxious, sad or depressed; and treat it like they would the onset of an illness. It is not just the stigma that continues to surround mental health issues that is hindering our ability to address this secondary epidemic. Says Luz M. Garcini, an assistant professor at the Center for Research to Advance Community Health at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio Long School of Medicine: “There is a need to change the rhetoric that is taking place in our country. We need to build more tolerant environments, more empathetic communities and less divisiveness among our people.”
Beyond the statistics, what does the face of this mental health epidemic look like? It includes many COVID-19 survivors like Charlene Fugate, 70, of Indianapolis. Back in March, as reported by AARP: “Within 2 1/2 to three hours of walking into the ER, Fugate was on a ventilator, with an IV, feeding tube and catheter, and was being transferred to the intensive care unit (ICU) at IU Health Methodist Hospital with a diagnosis of COVID-19. She spent three days in the ICU and another four days in a different unit in the hospital before going home. Yet three months later, her recovery is still a work in progress.” Soon after she left the hospital, Fugate started having flashbacks of her time in the ICU — fragments of memories that she describes as “distressing and frightening.” She also lives with the overwhelming fear that she will get sick again.
“Anyone who has been in the ICU is prone to long-term emotional, cognitive and physical problems, collectively termed post-intensive care syndrome,” notes Sikandar H. Khan, an osteopathic doctor, pulmonologist and critical care physician who oversees the Critical Care Recovery Center at IU Health in Indianapolis. “(It is) a very common condition where patients and their caregivers experience quality-of-life impairment for up to two years after surviving critical illness.”
Or take the case of Angela Aston. As reported by The New York Times, on March 30, she came home to her family with a cough, which she identified as the onset of COVID-19. As a nurse practitioner, she knew what to do, and she was confident she could handle her symptoms. “By day 50 of her illness, that confidence had disappeared,” writes the Times. “In late May, she was still experiencing daily fevers and fatigue. She went to bed each evening worried that her breathing would deteriorate overnight.” Since March, she has gone to the emergency room a dozen times, she tells the Times. “A persistent mental fog has made it difficult to put together sentences.”
Aston is what is now known as a “long-hauler,” a group that demonstrates how little we still know about this virus, and there are thousands in this country like her. According to the Times, only in recent months has more attention been given to long-haulers.
“It makes you depressed, anxious that it’s never going to go away. People would say to my husband, ‘She’s not better yet?’ They start to think you’re making it up,” she says.
As reported by Medical Xpress, a leading web-based science, research and technology news service, researchers from Oxford University have found that, during lockdown, teenagers consistently report higher levels of anxiety and depression than parents. It is also pointed out that 75% of mental health conditions present themselves during this key phase in child development. Despite this, only a minority of research funding goes toward understanding mental health during adolescence. “Now, millions of teenagers are returning to school,” says Medical Xpress, bringing with them unique experiences, worries and traumas from the pandemic lockdown.