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An Isolated Apocalypse: a Deep-Dive into the Impact of COVID-19 on Adult Mental Health Trends

Written by Dina Kaplan '26

Edited by Owen Wogmon '23

The KFF “Figure 1: Average Share of Adults Reporting Symptoms of Anxiety Disorder and/or Depressive Disorder, January-June 2019 vs. January 2021”


Hopelessness and isolation. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 felt to many like the beginning of an apocalypse; devastatingly life-altering, COVID-19 took its toll on everyone. Ironically, even our efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 – namely quarantines and social distancing – exacted a cost, contributing to sentiments and periods of isolation for all.


By mid-March 2020, nearly every college campus had shut down, either forcing students to self-quarantine in dorms, or most often, sending them home. Students’ daily schedules shifted immediately to new forms. Celebrations of the postponement or outright cancellation of midterms season quickly transformed into sheer apathy for online learning. As students gluing their eyes to screens for hours on end was accompanied by an increased need for blue light glasses and back pillows, so too was it accompanied by an acute uncertainty about when (or whether) typical social and academic interactions would resume. For students, acknowledging the disease meant sacrificing normality.


Two years later, the World Health Organization in 2022 released a report detailing several factors that contributed to the widespread increase in anxiety and behavior-related disorders that young people demonstrated during the pandemic. Primarily, the WHO reported that, by sending students home, school closures increased their risk of family stress and abuse, both of which are known contributors to mental illness [1]. In fact, The CDC reported in June 2020 that post-surveys conducted among adults aged 18+ in the US, 40.9% of respondents reported at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition, which the report concludes were composed mostly of pandemic-related causes [2]. More specifically, women were more vulnerable than their male counterparts to household stress-caused domestic violence, with the Journal of Criminal Justice reporting a 45% increase in women experiencing direct or indirect violence in the first year of the pandemic [3]. The lack of investigation of the underlying factors impacting specifically female populations, including higher rates of domestic violence and job loss (5.4 million vs. 4.4 million lost by men), must be further analyzed to spark policy change and reverse trends [4].



Beyond the underlying factors that contributed to worse mental health outcomes at home, mental health service disruptions led to a decrease in overall accessibility to support, with staff often redeployed to COVID-19 relief areas. They were responsible mainly for treatment of disease rather than fulfilling their previous heath specialties.


Yet, these adverse mental health outcomes were not evenly distributed. Unexpectedly, suicidal thoughts were significantly higher in underrepresented minority racial/ethnic groups, who, prior to the pandemic, had reported lower rates of mental health disorders and suicide ideation than their white counterparts. However, from 2020-2022, suicide ideation ratios have shifted in favor of white populations, who report significantly lower rates of suicidalthoughts than their minority counterparts. Specifically, according to a Plus One metaanalysis of 691,473 people in the United States and United Kingdom from January 23, 2021 to June, 9, 2021, “Black Americans were 1.16 times more likely to screen positive for depression than White respondents,” while “Hispanic Americans and Asian American were 1.23 and 1.15 times more likely to screen positive, respectively.” [4] Significantly, the New York Times reported that blacks experience suicide rates that are about ⅓ those of white populations [5].


But COVID’s effects on mental health were not limited by race: gender-specific mental health trends shifted in several capacities. During the Pandemic, anxiety- and depression-caused increases in substance use and suicidal ideation were more prevalent in female than male populations.


The impact of COVID-19 on mental health trends for racial minorities, young people, students, and other demographics manifests in newfound ways because of social factors including mandated quarantines and heightened levels of anxiety resulting from uncertainties of the pandemic. Mental health conditions that have traditionally been viewed as more present and impactful on white male populations pose various questions for the US healthcare system and US policymakers moving forward, who must consider how other marginalized populations are impacted. Additionally, the pandemic has only magnified the urgent need for comprehensive mental health support. The pandemic-related mental health crisis only suggests the importance of mental health support services being increasingly present at worksites, in medical evaluations, and at educational centers. Mental health factors that were once overlooked have only been spotlighted by this global crisis, a warning sign for mental health care reform.

 

References


[1] World Health Organization. [Internet]. The impact of covid-19 on mental health cannot be made light of. World Health Organization. [Cited December 18, 2022]. Available from: https://www.who.int/news-room/feature-stories/detail/the-impact-of-covid-19-on-mental-health-cannot-be-made-light-of


[2] Czeisler MÉ, Lane RI, Petrosky E, et al. Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation During the COVID-19 Pandemic [Internet]. — United States, June 24–30, 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2020;69:1049–1057. [Cited December 18, 2022]. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6932a1.


[3] Alex R. Piquero, Wesley G. Jennings, Erin Jemison, Catherine Kaukinen, Felicia Marie Knaul, Domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic - Evidence from a systematic review and meta-analysis, Journal of Criminal Justice, Volume 74, 2021, 101806, ISSN 0047-2352 [Internet]. [Cited December 18, 2022]. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S004723522100026X


[4] Aditi_Shrikant. (2022, September 27). Black and Brown Americans had higher rates of anxiety and depression during the COVID-19 pandemic, New Study finds. CNBC. [Cited December 18, 2022,]. Available from: https://www.cnbc.com/2022/09/22/racial-minorities-had-higher-rates-of-anxiety-and-depression-in-2021.html


[5] Frakt, A. (2020, December 30). What can be learned from differing rates of suicide among groups. The New York Times. [Cited December 18, 2022]. Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/30/upshot/suicide-demographic-differences.html



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