COVID-19 Pushes Mental Illness to the Forefront

By Valerie J. Dimond
Monday, January 25, 2021

By the end of 2020, more than 40% of U.S. adults reported symptoms of anxiety and/or depression resulting from the coronavirus pandemic — up 11% from 2019.

The Link Between Mental Illness and the Pandemic

Social isolation, loneliness, loss of income, food insecurity, loss of loved ones and fear of catching the coronavirus are some of the leading causes of declining mental health. However, research indicates that merely surviving COVID-19 also puts people at risk, with as many as 1 in 5 diagnosed with a psychiatric problem for the first time within 14 to 90 days after testing positive for the virus. Of those who had mental illness before the pandemic, many experience exacerbated symptoms. Specific COVID-19-related problems that adults experience include:

  • Difficulty sleeping (36%)
  • Eating disorders (32%)
  • Increased alcohol and substance use (12%)
  • Thoughts of suicide (12%)
  • Worsening chronic conditions (12%)

Unfortunately, 21% of adults say they need counseling but don’t have access to behavioral healthcare services.

Children Suffer, Too

Mental health-related visits to the emergency department (ED) among children began to increase in April 2020 and continue to rise due to virus-related disruptions to daily activities. For example, 30 million students in the U.S. were affected by school closures, forcing young people to adjust to remote learning, less social engagement and loss of mental health services provided by schools.

Children ages 5 to 11: ED visits increased 24% compared with 2019.

Children ages 12 to 17: ED visits increased 31% compared with 2019.

Treatment Via Telehealth

According to the Physicians Foundation, because of the coronavirus, almost half of physicians (48%) now use telehealth to treat patients — up from 18% in 2018. Psychiatrists, in particular, are telehealth power users, and many transitioned to telehealth within a matter of days after shelter-in-place orders were issued. According to a survey of psychiatrists who use telehealth, most said their patients responded positively to the change, and the doctors themselves reported both positive and negative experiences providing virtual care.

Positive Impacts

  • Insight into a patient’s home environment
  • Improved access to underserved patients with logistical barriers
  • Increase in candidness among some patients, who feel more relaxed using a phone or video compared with in-person visits

Negative Impacts

  • Difficulty assessing movement disorders caused by antipsychotic medications
  • Inability to observe nonverbal cues
  • Less privacy and more distractions in the home setting
  • Trouble hearing patients clearly