It’s the first sentence I wrote this week. I wrote it on a Thursday. Like a lot of people right now, I find work harder to do, and even basic daily chores feel heavier than usual. If this sounds familiar to you, you are not alone. The pandemic has taken its toll on everyone’s mental health, and there is data to prove it.
Although there have been many discussions about the economic fallout from a global pandemic, the consequences on our collective mental health are more difficult to quantify. It’s almost impossible to stay home for months, undo years of events, and disrupt even basic routines like the way we buy groceries without having a significant impact on our mental health. And yet, one can feel that the impact of these changes is “just stress”, and treat it as something to go through.
According to data from Mental Health America (MHA), however, more people face a deterioration in their mental health. From January to September 2020, the number of people who have taken an MHA anxiety tests increased by 93% over the previous year. Organization depression screening saw a 62% increase over 2019 totals. Even before the year was out, more people were trying to find out if they were suffering from anxiety or depression than ever before.
MHA is not the only organization with data indicating the impact of the pandemic on mental health. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey in July 2020, 53% of adults said the pandemic was having a negative impact on their mental health. Data collected from the CDC found that 41% of adults had symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder in December 2020, up from 11% in January-July 2019.
All of this to say that it’s not just you. Mental health disorders are a natural reaction to an ongoing traumatic event such as a pandemic.
Why a pandemic increases mental health problems
The pandemic has disrupted most aspects of our lives, but the added isolation of quarantines, social distancing and canceled events is one of the biggest detrimental effects on our collective mental health. It’s not just that we miss our friends and family. The social bonds we have form support systems and safety networks. With those that are gone or downsized, it can lead to increased symptoms of anxiety or depression.
MHA’s vice president for mental health and systems advocacy, Debbie Plotnick, explained that one of the ways this can manifest – especially in young people – is self-harm. “In November, 53% of people aged 11 to 17 said – so more than half – frequently having thoughts of suicide or self-harm.”
One of the main reasons not only for thoughts of self-harm in young people, but also for mental health issues in people of all ages, is the distance we have had to put between ourselves. “We asked [the people who take MHA surveys] what troubles them – and remember, they’re not all young – and they tell us it’s loneliness and isolation.
It may seem that isolation isn’t as bad as some of the other stressors a pandemic can bring – lost income, political unrest and disrupted schedules – but it’s a crucial factor. We need other people, and while digital connections like Zoom meetings or Discord parties are a great filler, it’s hard to be away from the people we have held dear for so long.
And then there is the practical impact. In September 2020, a quarter of American adults said they had struggled to pay their bills since the start of the pandemic, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. However, this number rises to 46% among low-income households. “For people who have jobs, they are very grateful,” Plotnick explained. “For the people who lose their jobs, it’s excruciating.”