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The Impact of COVID-19 on Mental Health, Addiction, and Those Seeking Treatment

The outbreak of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has stirred an unprecedented amount of stress, fear, and anxiety in populations across the globe. Although we are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel, millions of people are still feeling left in the dark. Coming out of this pandemic, many people are feeling overwhelmed with anxiety, emotion, loneliness, and questions about what will come next.

While there are still many unknowns surrounding coronavirus, the impact of this pandemic on mental health has become more clear. The loss of jobs, of in-person connection, and of life – combined with the ongoing stress of COVID-19 – has led many people to experience symptoms of depression, suicide, anxiety disorders, and post-traumatic stress.

In fact, according to the recent Household Pulse Survey, about 4 in 10 adults in the U.S. reported symptoms of an anxiety and/or depressive disorder in early 2021. This is up from the 1 in 10 adults who reported these symptoms back in 2019.

While numbers have since fallen, as of March 2021, there were still one-third of American adult struggling with anxiety and depressive symptoms – largely a result of the recent pandemic. Additionally, the CDC reports that the number of Americans with “unmet mental health needs” also increased in early 2021. These increases were highest among young adults (ages 18-29) and those with less than a high school education.

Forbes magazine echoes this sentiment, with the April 2021 headline, “Young People Hit Hardest By Loneliness And Depression During Covid-19.” Citing CDC data, the author states that nearly two-thirds of young people are suffering significant symptoms of anxiety and depression, following the pandemic. Additionally, about one-quarter of young people started using – or increased their use of – substances during the pandemic, to cope with their emotions. Substances of abuse include alcohol, marijuana, and prescription drugs. This is an alarming finding that underlines the long-lasting impact COVID-19 could have our collective mental health, and the mental health of our younger generations. The trauma left from the pandemic could put them at increased risk for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Additionally, with young people have been shut out of schools and forced to shelter-in-place, they turned to social media to stay in touch with friends. While social media can be a great outlet for connectivity and creativity, we know it also has some risks. As explained in our article here, social media can stir issues with self-confidence and mental health, as well as put teens at greater risk for substance use and other risky behaviors.

This is just the beginning of some of the immediate, mental health effects we are seeing from COVID-19. On top of the causal mental health implications, the pandemic also created new obstacles for people already suffering from mental illness and substance use disorders, including their ability to get help.

Below, we assess the impact that COVID-19 can have on mental health, and what you can do to cope. We also explore how COVID-19 is affecting those already battling mental health and substance use disorders, and what we can do to help.

The Impact of COVID-19 on Mental Health, and How to Cope Effectively

Many health professionals are concerned about the rising rates of mental illness in wake of coronavirus. As noted above, depression, anxiety, suicide, and trauma-associated disorders are of largest concern—and on a global scale.

Many people have experienced great loss caused by the pandemic. Some have lost jobs, some have lost their homes, and many have lost their loved ones. Research shows that job loss and foreclosure are both linked to depression and anxiety. Death and bereavement are also frequently followed by depression.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) states that common responses to the COVID-19 pandemic were:

  • Concern about protecting oneself and loved ones from the virus, particularly those who are at higher risk
  • Concern that regular medical care or community services may be disrupted, due to closures, reduced hours, or reduced availability of services
  • Feeling socially isolated, especially if they live alone or are in a community setting that is not allowing visitors because of the outbreak (such as nursing homes)
  • Guilt if loved ones help them with activities of daily living, despite the pandemic
  • Increased levels of distress if they:
    • Live in lower-income households or have language barriers
    • Experience stigma because of their age, race/ethnicity, or perceived likelihood of contracting and spreading COVID-19
    • Have mental health concerns before the outbreak, such as depression

Even as more Americans get vaccinated, the concern and distress still exists. Some people are still grieving all that was lost, or taken by the pandemic. Many people are living in fear, afraid to contract or to spread the disease. Many people are still experiencing anxiety, with so many unknowns about the virus and its long-term impact on our lives.

If you are experiencing depression, anxiety, stress, or any of the above, know that you are not alone. Millions of people are walking in similar shoes. As alone as you feel in this moment, there is support available to you – even if it is still at six feet away. Here are some tips on how to take care of your mental health during this time:

  • Connect with your loved ones often. Consider getting vaccinated and seeing your loved ones when it is safe to do so. Continue virtual communications with your loved ones as needed. One silver lining of this pandemic is that it has put distant family members in touch, through video chatting, group messaging, phone conversations, and more.
  • Focus on self-care. Take care of your body by eating healthy, exercising regularly, getting outside, and getting plenty of sleep. Avoid alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs, as they may exacerbate negative mental health symptoms.
  • Take breaks. Whether you are working from home, in school, or taking care of a family, be sure to take some time to unwind each day. Take deep breaths and participate in activities you enjoy.
  • Stay informed, but stay balanced. Stay informed enough so that you do not feel stressed about missing any news or updates from officials. However, be sure to avoid too much exposure to the media. It can be upsetting to hear about the crisis constantly.

Everyone handles disaster and devastation differently. We all have unique, natural reactions to difficult situations, and as a result, we will all experience – and walk away from – this pandemic differently. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA), however, most people will have the ability to cope and bounce back.

“Most people show resilience after a disaster. Resilience is the ability to bounce back, cope with adversity, and endure during difficult situations. Thankfully, resilience in disaster recovery is ordinary, not extraordinary, and people regularly demonstrate this ability. Using supportive resources to address stress and other hardships is a critical component of resilience.”

Of course, some people are going to be more affected than others. In turn, some people may suffer from serious mental and emotional distress, even after the pandemic comes to an end. If you are experiencing stress for several days in a row, and it is getting in the way of your daily activities, it is important to contact your healthcare provider. Common signs of distress to watch for include:

  • Feelings of anxiety and fear, or numbness and disbelief.
  • Changes in appetite, energy, and activity levels.
  • Difficulty concentrating on important tasks.
  • Difficulty sleeping, due to upsetting thoughts and images.
  • Physical stress symptoms, such as headaches, body pains, stomach problems, and skin rashes.
  • Worsening of chronic health problems.
  • Anger or short-temper.
  • Increased use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs.

Contact your health provider if you are experiencing any of the above for several days in a row, and you are unable to carry out normal responsibilities because of these negative effects. If your child is showing signs of distress, it is also important to contact your pediatrician or a professional mental health counselor. The CDC offers parents tips for helping children cope online here. As an adolescent and young adult rehab facility, Turnbridge can also help.

The Impact of COVID-19 on Recovery Communities

The added stress and isolation stirred by COVID-19 also has the potential to severely impact those who are already struggling with a mental health condition or substance use disorder. Those battling depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, may experience exacerbated symptoms such as sadness, loneliness, panic attacks, and an increased risk for suicide. Similarly, those recovering from a substance use disorder also have a greater potential to relapse, as they may turn back to drugs or alcohol to cope with this ongoing stress.

Check in on your loved ones. You can help to keep them on track.

In recovery – whether that is for a mental health or substance use disorder – social support is fundamental. A social network provides structure for those overcoming these conditions, offers emotional support during difficult times, and helps to hold them accountable when needed. As social creatures, we depend on connections for our wellbeing – and for recovery communities, this is especially the case. Inherently, COVID-19 has impacted our ability to receive full social support, but there are alternative solutions (such as video chat) that can help us stay connected.

For those struggling with drug abuse and lacking a social support system nearby, COVID-19 creates another unique challenge in that there may not be anyone around to recognize worsening symptoms of drug abuse or a potential overdose. Because of social isolation and physical distancing, the likelihood that a loved one will recognize the signs of an overdose, or reach you in time, is becoming a greater concern. This is why it is so important to check-in on your loved ones regularly, particularly those who are struggling with substance use and mental health issues.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse also warns of the effect COVID-19 has had on the greater healthcare system. “We’re hearing from multiple sources that it’s become harder for patients to be able to access treatment.” This means limited access to medications, such as the opioid reversal drug naloxone, as well as reduced admissions into clinical facilities. If you or a loved one is struggling with mental health issues, or needs help getting back on a sober path, know that there is still help. Telehealth is becoming a more common practice in treatment communities, and Turnbridge is just one call away.

In addition, it is important you continue the following recovery strategies, to stay mentally and physically safe:

  • Stay connected with friends and family, whether that means waiting until you are vaccinated, or staying touch online or at a distance
  • Keep busy with fun hobbies, crafts, reading, films and home improvements
  • Prioritize physical activity, such as walking, running and online exercise classes
  • Stay calm by turning to mindfulness techniques, meditation, prayer or pets
  • Maintain your routine by having a daily plan

Most of all, do not hesitate to seek help if you need it, whether that is through your healthcare provider or a dedicated mental health or substance use treatment professional. Be aware of any new or worsening symptoms that arise. This will help minimize any potential negative outcomes of COVID-19.

Turnbridge is a substance use and mental health treatment center, offering evidence-based therapies for adolescents and young adults battling co-occurring disorders. If you or your loved one is struggling during this time, know that you are not alone. We are here for you. Call 877-581-1793 and we will connect you with a treatment specialist.