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The Covid pandemic has introduced many changes that have impacted mental health. Loneliness was already a major health problem before the enforced isolation of quarantines and social distancing. Now, after a gradual return to pre-pandemic normalcy, there is still cause for concern that Covid isolation may have triggered a mental health crisis. Consider these social and mental health effects of the pandemic, among still others:
- Depression rates tripled in the first months of the pandemic, hitting just under 30 percent, Boston University School of Public Health found.
- Overdose deaths spiked to record levels between April 2020 and April 2021, topping 100,000, the Centers for Disease Control said.
- People have shed whole categories of friendships and become “more insular,” according to articles in The Atlantic (January 27, 2021) and The Guardian (January 2, 2022).
Mental Health During the Pandemic and the Impact of Covid
Such trends are worrying for Dr. Michael Jochananov. He is the program director of “Restore,” which is FHE Health’s treatment program for those whose primary diagnosis is a mental health issue. When we asked Dr. Jochananov in a recent interview whether he had concerns about the mental health impact of Covid and Covid-induced isolation, he said he was “very concerned, although the long-term consequences are less clear to date.”
Covid Anxiety and Pandemic Depression
Anxiety and depression were already leading causes of disability in this country before the emergence of Covid, but the pandemic made these issues even more common. Dr. Jochananov was quick to point out this trend, noting “an increase in the prevalence of reported mental health symptoms of generalized anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and sleep disturbance in participants as soon as one month after COVID-19 infection.”
That uptick in mental health symptoms had a domino effect: “As a result, we have seen an increase in incidence of domestic violence, drug overdose, and completed suicides,” Dr. Jochananov said.
Social Isolation and Poorer Mental Health
Dr. Jochananov was hesitant to predict the long-term mental health consequences of Covid isolation but, as cause for concern, cited the findings of an August 2020 study in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology. It named “social isolation, loneliness, and uncertainty” as “key risk factors for developing mental health problems.” These factors also “pose a significant concern for the long-term consequences of social distancing,” the study authors wrote.
The fact that social isolation was already at higher levels before Covid makes these findings more concerning for Dr. Jochananov. “People in the past decade have been living increasingly socially disconnected and isolated lives every day, long before the pandemic and imposed societal lockdown,” he said. “Given that, there is danger of the exacerbation of prevalence and intensity of symptoms.”
The Impact of Lack of Socialization
The impact of a lack of socialization is one revealing angle from which to explore how isolation can hurt individual mental health. Here is how Dr. Jochananov defined the detrimental impact of a lack of socialization:
We are social creatures by nature. In most cases, socializing is vital in reducing feelings of loneliness, but it also helps to sharpen memory and cognitive skills, increases your sense of happiness and wellbeing, and given an overall healthy lifestyle, may even help you live longer.
When we do not socialize appropriately—ideally this means face-to-face contact, as opposed to texts and emails—research shows that we risk an increase in stress, loneliness, and feelings of disconnection.
In the absence of supports, Dr. Jochananov said the stress, loneliness, and disconnection “can lead to anxiety and depression,” which in turn can negatively affect physical and mental health and cognitive and mental abilities and lead to “a shortened life span.” This can occur because of “the physical effects of the isolation or lack of socialization” or due to “those choosing to end their lives.”
Increased Stress Since 2020
The pandemic also significantly increased stress levels for most Americans, according to surveys. (Here, too, as further context, it is worth noting that Americans were already more stressed out than in previous decades.) Naturally, the combination of record-level stress and record-level social isolation created a perfect storm for mental health. Anxiety, depression, and other health problems soared.
“Does Covid Cause Anxiety?” Mental Health Issues from “Long Covid”
In some cases, Covid (and the many stressors related to it) did not just indirectly cause anxiety and depression—it was a direct cause. These and other mental health issues began to affect a proportion of the population diagnosed with “long Covid.” (The term refers to a range of symptoms that people may experience as late as more than four weeks after being infected with SARS-CoV-2.) Long Covid has been associated with “anxiety, PTSD, hopelessness, poor self-care, substance abuse, suicide attempts and domestic abuse,” Dr. Jochananov said.
Lasting Impact of Germaphobia?
What might be the lasting impact of Covid as it relates to germaphobia? (Dr. Jochananov previously commented on Covid-related OCD, germaphobia and treatments, in an article in April 2021.)
“Covid is another stripe on the tiger,” he said. He added:
In general, we tend to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports our beliefs or values. We call this the “confirmation bias.” For individuals struggling with germaphobia, the tendency to do this is exponential. Given the nature of a phobia, media in all formats (mainstream, social, etc.) will feed these fears because we have the ability to expose ourselves or be subject to algorithms that will provide the information that we ‘know to be true,’ further adding fuel to the fire.
The Prospects of a “Mental Health Pandemic”?
Finally, the million-dollar question: Will this viral pandemic lead to a mental health pandemic? Has it already?
“I would not say we are in the throes of a mental health pandemic,” Dr. Jochananov said, adding (encouragingly) that he doesn’t believe we’ll get there. “Although there has been a sharp rise in reported mental health issues and problems in living,” he ended on a hopeful note, by stating that “there are many factors to address this.” Among them: “the decrease of the stigma of mental health and the proliferation of telemedicine practices allowing individuals to have access to medication and talk therapies in many formats.”
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