When the novel coronavirus finally reached the United States, it was not long before stores, restaurants, and schools were closing, while everyone who could afford it was raiding grocery stores and pharmacies to buy toilet paper and cleaning supplies in excess. Meanwhile, the new virus was spreading fast, causing hospitals to overflow with sick patients. States began to enter lockdowns, and by the end of March, practically the entire country was under stay-at-home orders. With such a rapid change in citizens’ way of life, it is not surprising that so many saw the virus negatively impacting their lives, even if they had come nowhere near it. Citizens are losing their jobs, spending hours worrying about their health, and dealing with excessive isolation, while many of those with pre-existing mental illnesses are struggling to keep their symptoms in check as so much is changing. In fact, while many classify this pandemic as only a physical health crisis, COVID-19 has also damaged the mental health of a plethora of Americans. It is important for people to recognize that this pandemic is more than a physical health issue and focus on what they can and should do to stay healthy mentally during this time.

More Than A Physical Health Crisis

In March 2020, President Trump declared a national emergency as a result of the coronavirus global pandemic. From that moment until now, it has been obvious that this virus is causing a physical health crisis in the United States, and many have remained focused on this fact. Very quickly, hospitals overfilled, tests were in short supply, and so was necessary health equipment, such as ventilators. And these terrifying facts were all over the news, causing people to continue to be most concerned about the physical health of our nation’s citizens. Those who haven’t been sick or had a loved one who’s been sick with COVID-19 are often considered lucky and unaffected. However, these people fail to consider the countless other ways in which this pandemic has been damaging the health of citizens, even those who haven’t been infected. Remaining locked in at home can cause severe loneliness and mental degradation for those living alone, and it can exacerbate pre-existing mental illnesses. Constant fear of being infected with a life-threatening virus can cause excess anxiety. And the economic crisis incited by the pandemic is causing job loss and financial stress for the most number of Americans since the Great Depression. Of course, this pandemic is a physical health crisis, but for so many reasons, it’s a mental health crisis, as well.

Unemployment And Financial Stress

Because so many stores, restaurants, schools, and more have had to close due to state lockdowns, many businesses have suffered financially, turning this health crisis into an economic one, as well. As a result, they’ve had to lay off a large number of employees. According to Today, more than 22 million people have filed for unemployment during the pandemic, meaning that this is the nation’s worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Under any circumstances, job loss can be stressful and depressing, leading to severe damages to mental health. One’s job is often tied to their identity, and losing that can lead people to question themselves excessively. However, during a pandemic, coping with job loss and unemployment becomes more difficult, as new jobs are extremely hard to come by, in-person interviews are almost nonexistent, and having the means to keep the family healthy is essential. In fact, Brad Klontz, a financial psychologist, says that financial stress is often accompanied by a “palpable fear of actual death.” Because money is necessary for survival, and one’s job is so closely intertwined with one’s lifestyle, being laid off can feel like a threat to one’s life. And during a global pandemic, the last thing anyone needs is another seemingly life-threatening stressor.

Health Anxiety

Ever since the president declared a national emergency, people have perpetually been scared. Suddenly, running errands, getting take-out, getting the mail, and so many other activities once deemed trivial and unthreatening are anxiety-inducing. After all, what if the coronavirus is living on that package, or that door handle, or even in that food? Worries such as these have been flooding the minds of American citizens, as the coronavirus death toll continues to rise; nobody wants to be its next victim. However, some people are wondering why many are so concerned when there’s a flu outbreak every year, and they couldn’t seem to care less. Well, they’re scared because this new virus is unfamiliar, and the steps they’re supposed to take to prevent it are uncertain. Over many years, Americans have been conditioned to handle flu season, and they know the symptoms, but those of the novel coronavirus are still not set in stone. Additionally, professionals seem to be going back and forth as to the best ways to combat the illness, and this can be even more terrifying. If even the medical professionals are unsure, people don’t know what to believe and who to trust.

Additionally, there is an added level of concern for certain groups of people, those deemed at-risk. This includes the elderly and people with pre-existing health conditions, such as diabetes, immuno-compromisation, and asthma. One thing the experts seem to be sure of is that these people are the most at risk for death as a result of COVID-19. Understandably, these groups of people are suffering from even more anxiety during this time. The constant fear of catching a deadly illness can take a serious toll on one’s mental health, especially as many states continue to reopen prematurely. As lockdowns are lifted, younger and healthier people are rushing back into restaurants, stores, and social gatherings. On top of the anxiety these at-risk people are feeling, not being unable to get back together with friends and enjoy these reopenings can incite feelings of loneliness and missing out, further damaging their mental health.  

Loneliness And Isolation

Another side effect of the global pandemic is the isolation that many have to deal with as a result of lockdowns and stay-at-home orders. While many have argued that staying at home is frankly an easy task, these guidelines have been specifically hard to handle for the 42% of American adults that currently live alone, as remaining at home means that they don’t interact with anyone. Of these people, 60% reported feeling lonely during the pandemic, and 41% reported feelings of isolation. For older adults, this can be particularly damaging, as studies have shown that social isolation can lead to weaker cognitive functioning, specifically in the elderly. As a result, many elderly people who live alone or in nursing homes with limited visiting may experience mental declines earlier than they would have if not for this pandemic. What’s worse, loneliness and isolation can lead to even more highly disruptive mental health effects, such as psychosis, delusions, and suicidal behavior.

Another disturbing effect of isolation, specifically as a result of quarantines, is an increase in symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Evidence for this idea was gathered during the past outbreak of sudden acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). A study found that during the SARS epidemic, individuals who had been quarantined were 2-3 times more likely to show symptoms of PTSD, compared to those who had not been, after it was over. In both China and Canada, individuals quarantined for ten days or more took longer to accept the return to normalcy, avoiding crowds and washing hands excessively long after the risk of SARS was practically nonexistent. Since almost all American citizens have experienced some type of quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic, this evidence suggests that there may be a surge of PTSD symptoms in the near future. Moreover, since this pandemic is far from over, these symptoms could last for a significant period of time. Studies have also shown that many people with PTSD symptoms turn to a substance to cope, which can give rise to vicious, dangerous cycles and in turn, create more mental and emotional struggles. 

Exacerbation Of Pre-existing Mental Illness

While any American may be dealing with the loss of a job, anxiety about health, or feelings of isolation during this pandemic, people with mental illnesses may be suffering from one or more of these on top of their previous condition. And even if they’re not, dealing with all of the change and uncertainty brought about by COVID-19 can make fighting that a mental illness that much harder. In fact, during the lockdowns in China, a study published in The American Journal of Psychiatry found that over 20% of Chinese citizens with mental illnesses reported a worsening of their symptoms as a result of the lockdown and the pandemic.

For people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), this pandemic may feel like their worst nightmare. Many OCD patients are already obsessed with washing their hands and may be excessively afraid of germs. Consequently, it can be hard for them to decipher whether or not the precautions they’re taking are normal or excessive. For those with anxiety disorders, the uncertainty caused by the pandemic can increase the quantity and frequency of their worrying. Under normal circumstances, anxious people are prone to wondering “what if?” about almost every aspect of their lives. Now, their fears might seem even more plausible, as they will likely feel more prone to a job loss or even death during a pandemic than on an average day. Depressed citizens are likely to experience a similar exacerbation of their symptoms. While they may usually feel lonely, defeated, and hopeless, a pandemic is just going to make these feelings seem even more real, while making the outlets to combat them far more difficult to access. 

Additionally, the pandemic is finding people with more time on their hands and less opportunities to blow off steam. Consequently, many people are turning to alcohol, drugs, or food to pass the time and ease their stress. In fact, liquor stores are some of the only businesses thriving during this time, as their sales are estimated to have gone up 55% compared to the same period last year. While an increased use of substances or increased eating may just be minor concerns for the average American, they are likely to be devastating for those with substance abuse problems and eating disorders, respectively. With more time on their hands and less distractions, people with addictions or tendencies to binge-eat may struggle to avoid relapse, which can set them further back on their roads to recovery. Moreover, in extreme cases, relapses during these times of isolation and uncertainty may even prove to be fatal.

Coping Strategies

Because the novel coronavirus pandemic has affected the mental health of so many Americans, the CDC, along with a multitude of therapists and other professionals, has released articles containing their advice for improving mental wellbeing during this time. One of the most common suggestions is taking a break from the media every so often. Constantly reading about the amount of people the pandemic is killing, or the fact that yet another big event was cancelled can be discouraging and exhausting, so taking time away from the news can be very beneficial. In addition, the CDC recommends taking care of one’s physical health, as exercise, nutritious eating, and sufficient sleep are directly linked to improved mental health. Additionally, for those with mental illnesses, such as anxiety and depression, journaling upsetting thoughts, maintaining a routine, and beginning or continuing therapy virtually can help with managing symptoms.

One of the other most important coping mechanisms during this time is social connection. Specifically for those living alone, connectivity in some way is practically essential. While in-person communication may be more difficult, especially for those who are more at-risk, online communication is a worthwhile replacement. Using Skype, FaceTime, Zoom, and other video chat apps such as these to connect with friends, colleagues, and relatives is extremely important and can do wonders for mental health during these unprecedented and uncertain times.