As we approach the anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is increasingly elusive to remember what life looked like “pre-COVID.” Furthermore, the hope of when life will return to normalcy dwindles outside of our scope. The longevity of the crisis, and its’ incalculable repercussions to our lives, appears to persist in wearing down our collective psyche. Some researchers have contended that a second pandemic is following in the footsteps of the wave of the virus: a pandemic of our mental health.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, mental distress was prevalent in our country. It has been estimated that one in five Americans live with a mental illness, suicide rates have increased by 30% since 1999, and that there is a critical shortage of mental health providers and resources available (CDC, 2018). Perhaps, it is easy to see how a deadly pandemic is further exacerbating the mental health of our nation. It is important to recognize the following factors and vulnerabilities that have been generated by COVID-19.
1. Prolonged exposure to stressful events and the perception of threat. Survivors of COVID-19 and their families are at a greater risk for posttraumatic stress, depression, sleep disturbance, anxiety, and cognitive dysfunction. Clinicians and front-line workers are also subject to these increased stressors.
2. As hospital systems reach capacity treating COVID-19 patients, behavioral health and psychiatric care are often the first department to suffer from the lack of resources and priority. Specifically, acute psychiatric care is significantly impacted by a strained hospital system.
3. Individuals with preexisting mental illness are experiencing symptom exacerbations or impairment in function due to increased stress and fear. While more people around the globe are experiencing distressing symptoms, individuals who already have these sensitivities are experiencing a worsening and increase in severity of mental health conditions.
4. People are at a greater risk of trauma or violence in their intimate partner and family relationships because of greater isolation/stressors and increased time at home.
Individuals affected by mental illness need more support than usual, but mental health systems are at risk for losing capacity due to hospital strain and outpatient closures to promote social distancing. Innovative models to deliver mental health support to communities in the midst of a pandemic are needed to prevent a mental health crisis, and a second pandemic.
Choi, K. R., Heilemann, M. V., Fauer, A., & Mead, M. (2020). A second pandemic: Mental health spillover from the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Journal of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association, 26(4), 340–343. https://doi.org/10.1177/1078390320919803