Millions of Americans struggled with their mental health well before COVID-19, but the pandemic hasn’t made shouldering mental illness any easier – an issue brought to light over the weekend after the death of country music star Naomi Judd.
Judd was 76 years old and the mother of the country music duo The Judds, performing for decades alongside her daughter Wynonna. On Saturday, Wynonna and her sister Ashley announced their mother had died, “to the disease of mental illness.”
Judd was among the nearly 52.9 million Americans with a mental illness, a statistic that has only risen since the start of the pandemic. The Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) found that the number of people who reported symptoms of anxiety disorder and/or depressive disorder jumped from 11 percent in 2019 to 41 percent in 2021, as the pandemic entered its second year.
Young adults have also especially felt the social and psychological effects of the pandemic, having to navigate school closures, missed graduations and opportunities, and time with friends. It also meant they lost access to mental health care, social services and even food.
A recent survey from Harvard University found that even after many COVID-19 restrictions ended, 52 percent of young adults aged 18 to 29 reported experiencing feelings of depression and hopelessness. Nearly a quarter said they had considered self-harm.
That’s in addition to thousands of their families simultaneously suffering job losses that resulted in loss of income. Many even lost a parent, sibling or relative to COVID-19, with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimating more than 140,000 U.S. children lost a primary or secondary caregiver due to the COVID-19 pandemic between April 1, 2020 to June 30, 2021.
Nearly three-quarters of respondents in the Harvard survey agreed with the statement, “the United States has a mental health crisis.”
KFF also noted that prior to the coronavirus pandemic, young adults were already at high risk of poor mental health and substance use disorder—with many not receiving any treatment.
Women also have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, many carrying the burden of school closures and lack of childcare. KKF found women with children were more likely to report symptoms of anxiety and/or depression at 49 percent compared to only 40 percent for men with children.
Communities of color are also associated with increased rates of depression, anxiety, distress and low self-esteem. During the pandemic, adults in households with job loss or lower incomes also reported higher rates of symptoms of mental illness at 53 percent, compared to only 32 percent for those who didn’t lose a job or income.
Health experts around the world are aware of just how acutely the coronavirus pandemic is impacting mental health issues. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported that in the first year of COVID-19, global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by a massive 25 percent.
“The information we have now about the impact of COVID-19 on the world’s mental health is just the tip of the iceberg. This is a wake-up call to all countries to pay more attention to mental health and do a better job of supporting their populations’ mental health,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general.
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy tried to do just that, issuing an advisory on a youth mental health crisis in December last year. It called for a “swift and coordinated” response with recommendations for how individuals can support mental health and wellbeing from birth to adulthood.
It also recommended schools expand their social and emotional learning programs and hire and train more mental health staff. Health care organizations were also encouraged to implement trauma-informed care (TIC) principles and routinely screen children for mental health challenges and risk factors.
Murthy emphasized that mental health challenges in children, adolescents and young adults were “real and widespread” even before the coronavirus pandemic and that, “the future of the wellbeing of our country depends on how we support and invest in the next generation.”
President Biden also took steps to strengthen the country’s response to the national mental health crisis, as part of his State of the Union address, including investments in the mental health workforce, integrating mental health services into medical insurance coverage and limiting how social media targets children online.
Health and Human Services (HHS) is also planning to launch a new mental health crisis service hotline, 988, that will establish a national network of local crisis centers to answer calls and text messages. The goal is to create a more community-based mobile crisis response and to minimize the need for emergency department visits.
The American Psychological Association (APA) found that even though the coronavirus has slowed down since 2020, other stressors have been added to Americans’ lives, like rising inflation and the historic Russian invasion of Ukraine.
In a poll fielded March 1-3, APA found that 63 percent of adults said their lives have been forever changed by the COVID-19 pandemic, with continued hardships for vulnerable populations, concerns for children’s development among parents and entrenched, unhealthy coping habits.
“Living through historic threats like these often has a lasting, traumatic impact on generations. As a society, it’s important that we ensure access to evidence-based treatments and that we provide help to everyone who needs it,” said Arthur C. Evans, APA’s chief executive officer, in a statement.
“This means not only connecting those in distress with effective and efficient clinical care, but also mitigating risk for those more likely to experience challenges and engaging in prevention for those who are relatively healthy,” said Evans.