COVID-19 Is Triggering Mental Health Crisis, Experts Say

May 8, 2020

Some fear the stress of social isolation, historic unemployment and health fears during the pandemic threatens our mental health. Dozens of national organizations raised concerns to Congress that the U.S. is unprepared to handle what may be a mental health crisis.

Austin Archer is 32-years-old and lives in an Indianapolis suburb. Through the COVID-19 crisis he’s been working at a grocery store. Otherwise, he and his family have been focused on social distancing. 

“Going through isolation and social distancing, it's had a pretty, I would say, profound effect on my ability to stay positive and to keep myself motivated to do things during the day,” Archer says.

Archer says he’s suffered bouts of severe depression before. He reached out to Side Effects because he wanted to know if social isolation might intensify anxiety and depression. 

“After a while I think on anyone, not just people with depression, I'd say it hits you that things are different,” Archer says. “And then this sinking feeling hits that you don't know when things are potentially going to go back to normal.” 

Across the country, calls to helplines have spiked. The Disaster Distress Helpline, operated by the federal government, saw a 880 percent increase in calls and a 1000 percent increase in texts. 

People in need can call a suicide hotline number at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) to reach a trained counselor. 

The dangers of isolation are well documented. For the elderly, it can contribute to the onset of dementia. Research shows it also can cause problems for younger adults. 

“We now have robust evidence that social isolation and loneliness are independent risk factors for premature mortality, and social connection is a significant protective factor,” Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a researcher at Brigham Young University, says. 

Holt-Lunstad spoke this spring to a group of reporters about her research.

She found that social isolation contributed to high blood pressure, stress hormones and chronic illnesses -- and a 29 percent increase in mortality. She was studying long-term isolation for periods of years. 

Shelley Johns is a researcher with IU Health and the Indianapolis-based Regenstrief Institute.
Credit Photo contributed by the Regenstrief Institute.

Shelley Johns, a psychologist and researcher with IU Health and the Regenstrief Institute, says many of her patients have been more anxious lately. 

“I think it's just compounded right now,” Johns says. “Not only do we have the chronic stress and the uncertainty and the not knowing and the economic impact of all of this -- not feeling you know, safe physically, medically.” 

Johns says there are a number of coping strategies. She suggested exercise, listening to upbeat music, and connecting with loved ones digitally. She says mindfulness -- a way to be more in-the-moment -- is also a useful tool.

“When our mind is in the future, we are more prone to anxiety,” Johns says. “When our mind is kind of hooked into thoughts of the past, you know, we're more likely to have feelings of regret or sadness or longing.” 

Holt-Lunstad has another suggestion. “So one potential option is to shift our mindset. Instead of interpreting the situation as being cut off from others, we can focus on doing this to protect those that we love,” she says. 

Johns says the long-term impact of COVID-19 on mental health is unclear. But she worries it could be severe. 

In most places, especially the Midwest, there are not enough mental health professionals to meet demand. And many people have trouble finding help.

“Do we have the capacity to deal with the emotional impact of all of this?” Johns says. “I am concerned about that.”

Some 50 major health groups recently wrote Congress for help. They said an additional $45 billion should be spent on mental health care during this crisis. That includes money to create more mental health jobs, bolster Medicaid and support suicide hotlines. 

They also noted that rising unemployment in past economic downturns led to increased suicide and addiction rates. That could mean 58,000 more deaths a year.

People in need can call a suicide hotline number at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) to reach a trained counselor. 

This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health.

Indiana Public Broadcasting, Side Effects and WFYI are asking Americans about health issues, as part of the America Amplified: Election 2020 initiative. To contact us directly with a question, email health@wfyi.org.

America Amplified, a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, is using community engagement to inform and strengthen local, regional and national journalism. Follow on Twitter at @amplified2020.