- Increase in Mental Health Challenges
- During the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans have reported increases in mental health challenges, substance misuse, and thoughts of suicide, with particular groups being disproportionately affected. For many, the mental health impact of the public health crisis has been made worse by events like the U.S. election cycle and repeated exposure to police brutality.
- Contributing Factors
- Factors that have contributed to mental health struggles during the pandemic include unemployment, financial stress, loss of social connection, death and grief, caregiving challenges, disruption of everyday life, uncertainty, and an inability to access physical or mental health care.
- Depict Validation, Coping, and Warning Signs
- Storytelling can have a positive impact by validating difficult emotions, portraying effective coping strategies, and highlighting risk factors and warning signs of a more serious problem.
Show Conversations About Mental Health and Help-Seeking
- Show people talking openly about their difficult thoughts, feelings, and behaviors related to the pandemic, and reinforce that all feelings are valid. Some experts worry that people won’t speak up about their struggles during the public health crisis because of guilt that other people are facing bigger challenges. Showing open conversations can empower viewers to speak up and address mental health challenges before they lead to more serious consequences like substance misuse and thoughts of suicide.
Depict Effective, Realistic Help-Seeking and Treatment
- Portray how the therapeutic community has adapted to the challenges of the pandemic by offering virtual therapy and support groups.
- These portrayals could help viewers understand the mental health care options available to them, despite reduced access to in-person care — for example, telehealth, or virtual AA meetings. They can also showcase the value of these virtual connections, particularly during a socially isolated time.
- For individuals who are not in crisis, it may be beneficial to see how mental health apps can provide a helpful interim solution when immediate in-person mental health care is not available.
Represent the Causes of Mental Health Challenges Accurately
- Highlight the interconnection between physical and mental illness. People with COVID-19 are at greater risk for mental illness AND people with mental illness are at a greater risk for COVID-19. There are also overlapping physical symptoms — for example, anxiety may present as shortness of breath, exhaustion, and nausea, which are also symptoms of COVID-19. These experiences can open up conversations about the interplay between the brain and the body, and how mental health cannot be separated from physical health.
Highlight the Power of Coping Skills and Self-Care
- Depict coping skills that can support mental health during the pandemic. For those who are not in crisis, mental health professionals recommend coping skills including: keeping a routine, maintaining a hopeful perspective, helping others, and maintaining social connections while minimizing negative social interactions or over reliance on social media. Additionally, activities like journaling, mindfulness, and breathing exercises, and regular physical activity can support mental health. Modeling these techniques can help viewers incorporate them in their daily routines.
Avoid Sharing Potentially Harmful Details
- Work with advisors to ensure that portrayals of the pandemic are realistic and solutions-focused. Sensationalized or overly negative narratives could increase an audience’s risk of mental health challenges.
Since the beginning of the global pandemic, most Americans have reported that the pandemic has negatively impacted their mental health more than it has affected their physical health. Thoughts of suicide have increased, especially among children and young adults, fronline workers, marginalized communities, and caregivers. The COVID-19 crisis has increased the prevalence of substance misuse and substance use disorder. Most states have reported an increase in the frequency of drug overdose deaths since the pandemic started.
Additionally, experiences like depression, stress or anxiety, grief, and trauma are on the rise due to the public health crisis.
- A March 2020 survey found that while 8.5% of respondents had experienced depression symptoms prior to the pandemic, that rate rose to 27.8% during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S.
- From August 2020 to February 2021, the percentage of adults with recent symptoms of an anxiety or a depressive disorder increased from 36.4% to 41.5%, and the percentage of those reporting an unmet mental health care need increased from 9.2% to 11.7%.
- Reported stress levels for adults in the United States are significantly higher since the beginning of the pandemic, marking the first significant increase in average reported stress since 2007.
- The COVID-19 pandemic has left an estimated 2 million bereaved individuals in the United States. As of February 2021, nearly 40,000 children age 17 and younger had lost at least one parent due to COVID-19. Prolonged grief typically affects approximately 10% of bereaved individuals, but experts believe this is an underestimate for grief related to deaths from COVID-19.
- Experts suggest that both adults and children will experience mass trauma as a result of the pandemic. A 2020 study found that 26.3% of respondents reported symptoms of a trauma- and stressor-related disorder related to the pandemic.
Rising mental health challenges are caused by a number of factors including unemployment, financial stress, loss of social connection, caregiving challenges, and an inability to access physical or mental health care. Changes like sudden unemployment, transition to working or schooling at home, and stay-at-home orders can interrupt aspects of our lives that protect our mental health — like a sense of purpose, routine, and social interactions. Additionally, concurrent events like the U.S. presidential election and repeated incidents of police brutality have put an additional emotional strain on many.
Certain groups are at higher risk for mental health challenges during the pandemic:
- People who contract COVID-19 are more likely to experience depression and anxiety than those who do not get the virus. In fact, COVID-19 patients are at two times the “risk for developing a mood or anxiety disorder for the very first time.” A 2021 study found that 1 in 3 patients diagnosed with COVID-19 experienced a psychiatric or neurological illness within six months.
- Parents caring for children who are at home are more likely to experience mental health challenges and this risk increases if a child is experiencing high levels of stress.
- People caring for a family member who is ill or disabled are generally at increased risk of experiencing emotional distress, and the dynamics of the pandemic further increases that risk.
- Pregnant women and mothers of newborns are experiencing increased rates of depression and anxiety during the pandemic.
- Healthcare workers on the frontlines are experiencing an unprecedented amount of stress and trauma. Most (62%) frontline health care workers say that worry and stress related to the pandemic has negatively affected their mental health.
- People with pre-existing mental health conditions, particularly substance use disorder are at a higher risk.
- Black Americans are at increased risk for mental health challenges due to factors like a greater likelihood of contracting COVID-19 compounded with exposure to stressors that negatively impact mental health like media coverage of police brutality and systemic oppression.
- Essential workers, people living near or below the poverty line, and young adults are also at higher risk for negative mental health consequences due to the pandemic.
Observable effects of mental health challenges connected to the pandemic include isolation, changes in sleep or eating patterns, inability to focus, irritability, worsening of chronic health problems, and increased use of drugs or alcohol. Mental health challenges may also cause people to miss work, or — in the case of frontline workers who are traumatized by their work environment — avoid or leave work entirely.
It’s important that changes in behavior are noticed and addressed early, especially among those at higher risk for distress and suicide — however, spotting these warning signs can be difficult when so many people are struggling and it is normalized. Symptoms of a mental health challenge could also develop long after the pandemic ends, as trauma has no timeline.