May is mental health awareness month, and never before has the topic of mental health been more relevant. Federal agencies and experts are reporting increasing rates of mental health problems and predict that this is only the beginning of a lasting mental health crisis.
Nearly half the people in the United States say the coronavirus pandemic is adversely affecting their mental health, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll. The tracking poll, which surveyed 1,226 Americans from March 25-30 and had a margin of error of 3 percentage points, indicates 45% of adults say the crisis has had a negative impact on their mental health, and 19% say it has had a "major impact."
"These numbers represent the tip of an iceberg," Paul Gionfriddo, president and CEO of Mental Health America (MHA), said. "Tens of thousands of people are already experiencing serious mental health problems because of the pandemic, many of them young."
The number of people screened by MHA for anxiety increased by more than 70% from January to April, and the number screened for depression rose by 64%, Gionfriddo said.
Of the people who contacted Mental Health America, 7,140 reported having thoughts of suicide or self-harm, a number 42% higher than what Gionfriddo said he would have expected based on experience before the pandemic.
In the three months since the beginning of the pandemic, demand for mental health resources has skyrocketed, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), which reported 41% more calls and emails to their hotline from March 1 to April 23 compared to the same period in 2019.
"HelpLine callers mentioning COVID-19 are most frequently experiencing serious anxiety about their physical and emotional health," Dawn Brown, director of community engagement at NAMI, said. "Some callers are experiencing panic attacks when reaching us, and our volunteers help them work through the panic until they're able to talk about the issue."
Seventy-five percent of callers need support and reassurance during this time, Brown said. Depression is the second-most-commonly reported condition, and the increase has been attributed to isolation and hopelessness.
This isn't the first time a mental health crisis has emerged in the wake of a tragedy or national emergency.
Following the global financial crisis in 2007 and the accompanying Great Recession, the U.S. saw high rates of depression, anxiety and alcohol abuse, and a 13% increase in suicides. In 2008 alone, over 46,000 lives were lost to suicides attributed to unemployment and income inequality.
In a survey conducted March 27-29 of 1,062 Americans by McKinsey & Company with a margin of error of 3 percentage points, 35% of all respondents said they were both depressed and anxious, while 42% of those who either had a job reduction or loss said they were both depressed and anxious. One out of four respondents reported "binge drinking," one out of five reported taking prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons, and one out of seven reported using illicit drugs.
As joblessness rates reach the worst level seen since the Great Depression, surpassing what was reported in 2008, experts are beginning to worry that the United States is not equipped to handle the increase. Models using data from past national emergencies show that there will likely be an increase in suicides, overdose deaths and substance abuse.
"We offer testing to protect people from the virus. We offer stimulus to protect their livelihoods,” Gionfriddo said. “We need to offer mental health screening and services to protect their lives."
While the new stimulus package does allocate funding to mental health resources, it is only a small percentage of the multitrillion-dollar emergency coronavirus funding.
Mental health resources
With no clear end to the pandemic in sight, many psychologists are transitioning to remote consultations through telemedicine.
Lynne Gots, a licensed psychologist, is just one of the thousands of mental health professionals treating patients from home. She said telemedicine has improved greatly over the past few months.
"I absolutely will continue to use telemedicine after the crisis. I've had a lot of people tell me they actually really like it," Gots said.
Gots outlined ways people can protect their mental health during the pandemic in an article for NAMI. Maintaining a routine, following a regular mental health treatment plan, and practicing mindfulness and acceptance techniques are just some of the ways people can manage the burden of COVID-19 and help to stay healthy, she said.
Gots also stressed the importance of taking reasonable precautions but not going overboard or allowing anxiety to dictate behavior.
Cultivating self-compassion is another way Gots said people can help to manage loneliness and maintain their mental health.
"To ease feelings of isolation, acknowledge your struggle, with kindness, rather than self-judgment, and recognize that millions of people worldwide are sharing your experience right now," Gots said. "Our only choice is to cope as best we can, forgive ourselves for having bad days, and remind ourselves it will not be like this forever."
Mental Health America, National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the National Alliance on Mental Illness provide resources such as educational information, free online screenings and helplines. More information on mental health and COVID-19 can be found on the CDC's website.