It is quite apparent that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we live our lives. Almost all of our daily activities were postponed for a substantial amount of time, and many aspects of our lives have still not been reinstated. Furthermore, with no end in sight and no promises of a vaccine, many individuals are feeling hopeless and depressed. The uncertainty of this pandemic adds a whole other layer of trouble to the situation. While certainly the main concern of this time is the physical health of those who contract COVID-19, a major side effect of COVID-19 is poor mental health in people from across the world. To put this in perspective, in past massive outbreaks of infectious diseases (none of which have been as severe as COVID-19) mental health issues have persisted due to the outbreaks for at least four years after the event. Researchers have even discovered that the psychological impacts of “bio-disasters” like pandemics and epidemics can generate negative psychological effects equivalent to that of other traumatic events such as earthquakes and terrorist attacks.
It is unsurprising that this pandemic has resulted in the deterioration of mental health in a variety of individuals. Almost everyone has had to stop doing the things that they love, stop interacting with their friends and family, work from home, and start to spend an abnormally large amount of time alone or just with those who they are living with. Additionally, many unfortunate individuals have lost jobs because of COVID-19’s effect on the economy and are therefore struggling to support themselves and their families. Many of those who still possess jobs are suffering due to an abnormally large or particularly small workload, thus resulting in numerous other issues. While it is not a surprise that many people are struggling with their mental health at this time, it is unclear exactly what mental health issues people are facing and if they can be dealt with in a healthy and constructive way.
Many experts agree that while the Coronavirus itself may provide a possibility for an increase in mental health issues, quarantine and lockdown measures across the world are also a cause for increasing mental instability in individuals. While certainly quarantines and lockdowns are necessary to reduce the amount of people who contract COVID-19, the increase in time spent alone, the inability to work, and the surge in free time seem to usher in mental health problems for many people. In fact, a recent psychological study that investigated a sample of individuals who had been quarantined found that those participants in quarantine were more likely to feel numerous negative emotional reactions when compared to their peers not in quarantine. These emotional reactions included “stress, depression, irritability, insomnia, fear, confusion, anger, frustration, boredom, and stigma associated with quarantine”. Additionally, the same researchers discovered that those who have previously struggled with these mental health issues are more likely to relapse during times such as these. Those who are also more at risk to suffer from mental health issues during this pandemic are those who are having economic struggles, those who have preexisting health issues are therefore more susceptible to the ill effects of COVID-19, and those with substance abuse troubles.
A study that investigated various mental health conditions in America in 2020 discovered that the average mental health of those in the sample (5,470 participants) was substantially worse in 2020 when compared to the average mental health during the same time period the year before (2019). Specifically, substance use and suicidal ideation has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than double the amount of people in 2020 reporting suicidal thoughts when compared to 2019 numbers. The increase in substance abuse could be attributed to more free time and less responsibilities during quarantine and lockdown; however, the increase is still significant enough to warrant discussion. Just as the study above discusses, this experiment’s results also suggest that struggles with mental health are disproportionately experienced by minorities such as “Hispanic persons, black person, essential workers, unpaid caregivers for adults, and those receiving treatment for preexisting psychiatric conditions.” This is sadly, not a surprising statistic; however, it does allow for a call to aid those in need and perhaps some changes in policies at this time. While it is clear that many people are suffering during this pandemic, it is still unclear exactly how to aid those who are experiencing severe mental health issues. While it is possible that quarantine, lockdowns, and worry about the virus are all possible reasons for this increase in mental health problems across the world, it is unlikely that any of these three stressors are going to be alleviated immediately, since they are all side-effects of COVID-19 which does not seem to be leaving any time soon.
One of the most common forms of mental health treatment is of course in-person therapy, whether that be one on one with a therapist or group therapy with a number of peers. While some sort of therapy would certainly aid many individuals with their battle with mental health issues, therapy can be inaccessible at the best of times. The COVID-19 pandemic has only added to the difficulty in seeking mental health care and therapy, mostly due to social distancing rules not allowing for in person one on one therapy sessions or group therapy sessions. Of course, social distancing is extremely necessary in order to stop COVID-19 from spreading even more than it already has; however, it does prove to make mental health care even more tricky than it previously was. Luckily, online therapy has proven to be a good alternative and is basically as effective as in-person therapy in helping individuals deal with mental health issues.
In fact, the internet has been used for all types of therapy for more than a decade. At first many mental health professionals criticized and opposed treating mental health in an online environment for a variety of reasons. For one, it was thought that it was necessary for therapists to get non-verbal cues from their clients in order to fully understand what their client was going through. Furthermore, many individuals were worried about how switching mental health treatment to an online environment may compromise the secrecy and confidentiality of patients and that it may lead to other ethical problems. Despite all these grievances against online mental healthcare (and several other oppositions), it persisted and soon became more normalized. In a study that did a meta-analysis of all empirical articles on the effectiveness of internet-based mental health treatment, it was found that the effect size of online sessions were practically equal to in-person treatment (approximately 0.53). This means that online therapy is as effective as in-person therapy. Of course, there are caveats to this finding such as the type of treatment and the exact mental health condition of the patient; however, this still provides evidence that online mental healthcare can be effective and should certainly be utilized during the COVID-19 pandemic if available.
Of course, part of the reason for so many mental health issues (specifically stress, depression, irritability, insomnia, and fear) is that many individuals have lost their jobs during this time and therefore will not be able to afford adequate mental healthcare, whether it is online or not. This calls into questions whether there are other, perhaps more affordable options for those seeking mental health care but who cannot access it. It is undeniable that discussions with a mental health professional would certainly be most helpful; however, recent research highlights other ways to improve overall mental health without specific treatment from mental health professionals. In a study of 4,627 adults during the COVID-19 pandemic, it was discovered that regardless of gender, if an individual exercises outside more often they are more likely to have positive mental health outcomes. If for any reason, one cannot exercise outdoors, it is also proven that indoor exercise can improve an individual’s mental health almost to the same extent as outdoor exercise. Although many may feel hopeless during this pandemic, there are ways one can attempt to improve their mental health. Of course, exercising is no substitute for actual mental health care; however, if one is unable to access the adequate care they need it is important to know small things they can do until they finally can acquire the care they need.
It is almost too cliche to call the COVID-19 era unprecedented; however, it is true that the modern world has never experienced a pandemic of this size. Therefore, it is hard to imagine the amount of individuals struggling at this time across the world. Even though this deadly virus itself is enough to insight panic, the necessary lockdown and quarantine measures across the world have only added to the novel psychological effects of this pandemic. Many studies have illustrated that an exceptional amount of people are suffering from mental health issues because of COVID-19. While social distancing protocols must be followed, psychological studies have proven that online mental health treatment such as online one on one therapy sessions or group therapy sessions are just as effective as in-person mental health treatment. Moreover, while many people do not currently have access to mental health care in any capacity, there are small things individuals can do to help their mental health until they can obtain the mental health care they deserve.