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2020 was not good for America's mental health, study confirms

Adriana Belmonte
·Senior Editor
·7-min read

A new study published in the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) confirms that 2020 sucked.

“There is a collective grief going on right now,” Maureen Sayres Van Niel, a Massachusetts-based psychiatrist and president of the American Psychiatric Association Women’s Caucus, told Yahoo Finance. “It’s a national trauma and we’re all suffering at some level. It’s a matter of how much.”

The research, based on a survey of 5,186 American respondents from August 28 to September 6, 2020, found that nearly 12% of adults surveyed seriously considered suicide in the prior month while 29.6% reported COVID-19-related trauma- and stressor-related disorder symptoms, 33% reported anxiety or depression symptoms, and more than 15% reported increased substance use.

Resources: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK for English, 1-888-628-9454 for Spanish, or Lifeline Crisis Chat.

“There are a lot of different potential challenges right now, spanning from concerns related to COVID-19 and the impact of having the disease or knowing people who have had it or died from it, to the uncertainty of the duration of the pandemic and the mitigation policies required to contain it, joblessness, food or housing insecurities, loneliness, systemic racism, exhaustion, and more,” Mark Czeisler, a Fulbright Scholar studying in Australia and research trainee at Brigham and Women’s Hospital who was one of the co-authors for the report, told Yahoo Finance.

Adverse mental health symptoms only got worse. (Chart: JAMA)
Adverse mental health symptoms only got worse. (Chart: JAMA)

Different types of emotional distress

The new survey was a follow-up to a June 2020 study, which also found that many Americans were struggling amid the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic turmoil, mass death, and record unemployment.

The prevalence of adverse mental and behavioral health conditions increased in every category. Students and essential workers were significantly more likely to report some kind of adverse mental health symptoms than any other group featured in the survey.

Resources: Disaster Distress Helpline: 1-800-985-5990 (press 2 for Spanish) or text TalkWithUs for English or Hablanos for Spanish to 66746. Spanish speakers from Puerto Rico can text Hablanos to 1-787-339-2663.

Sayres Van Niel explained that it’s a matter of emotional distress that people are feeling in general during the pandemic and those who have a history of emotional distress that is exacerbated by the pandemic.

“Those with previous mental conditions, they are suffering much more than usual and having much more symptomatology because they can’t get the usual treatments they use to keep themselves healthy,” she said. “Some of them take medicine or medicines, some of them go to groups, some of them see a therapist. And in some of the communities, getting on board with telemedicine has not been easy. There are many patients, particularly patients in minority and lower-income communities, who just can’t get the services they usually need for their illnesses.”

A woman cries as she listens to speakers at the National COVID-19 Remembrance, on the ellipse behind the White House in Washington, DC on October 4, 2020. - US President Donald Trump has
A woman cries as she listens to speakers at the National COVID-19 Remembrance, on the ellipse behind the White House in Washington, DC on October 4, 2020. (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP)

The stress of getting sick from the virus or friends and family getting sick from the virus — along with increased isolation and economic distress — has proven to be another factor.

“Some people who normally don’t have any mental health conditions are developing them because they’re so concerned and worried about the people who they love who have the illness, or they may have lost a member of their family,” Sayres Van Niel said.

'Having trouble getting their medications'

Those with substance use disorder have also been struggling during the pandemic. Yahoo Finance previously reported that more drug overdose deaths occurred in the U.S. in the 12-month period ending in May 2020 than at any other time. The latest JAMA study only confirms that.

“Those folks are having trouble getting their medications they’re taking for withdrawal,” Sayres Van Niel said. “They’re usually in very important groups they meet with almost every day. So substance use disorders have increased over the course of the pandemic.”

Resources: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration National Helpline (also known as the Treatment Referral Routing Service) for persons and families facing mental disorders, substance use disorders, or both. Phone: 1-800-662-HELP; TTY: 1-800-487-4889.

Part of this is because to get methadone, a medication-assisted treatment used for those trying to wean off other addictive drugs, people have to go in person to receive it. That was made difficult by a pandemic in which social distancing is encouraged.

Other groups of people at risk of mental health distress are those who are victims of intimate partner violence, since they are potentially sequestered with their abusers, and those who have a history of trauma in their lives such as military service members with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Those folks, when they’re not allowed to ever leave a situation or get their treatment, sometimes their symptoms can also be what they call ‘triggered’,” Sayres Van Niel said.

View of information on mental health resources, available at a walk-up testing site for coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S., April 21, 2020.  REUTERS/Kathleen Flynn
View of information on mental health resources, available at a walk-up testing site for coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S., April 21, 2020. REUTERS/Kathleen Flynn

'The most serious national trauma we’ve been through as a country'

Loneliness and feelings of hopelessness are other major issues contributing to people’s mental health.

Elizabeth Brokamp, a licensed professional counselor who runs the Virginia-based Nova Terra Therapy practice, said that her clients are talking about their loneliness “far more often” than she’s heard expressed in the past.

“The duration of [the pandemic] has been devastating,” Brokamp told Yahoo Finance. “People are resilient and can adjust to almost anything if they have hope that it will be temporary but the longer this stretches out without getting back any sense of normalcy, it has gotten harder and harder for them to stay hopeful and optimistic. With the new strains of virus, I worry about the mental health casualties that are going to result from people losing hope.”

Sayres Van Niel has a 72-year-old patient who lives alone but is usually around her family. However, once the pandemic started, her family grew concerned about exposing her to the virus so they stopped visiting.

Domingo L, a resident of King David Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation, a long term care nursing home, meets his daughter through a glass on Christmas during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in Brooklyn's Bath Beach neighbourhood in New York City, U.S. December 25, 2020.  REUTERS/Yuki Iwamura     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Domingo L, a resident of a long term care nursing home, meets his daughter through a glass on Christmas during the pandemic in Brooklyn's Bath Beach neighbourhood in New York City, December 25, 2020. REUTERS/Yuki Iwamura

“As I watched her go through the number of months, it’s now been almost a year, about nine months into it she developed a severe depression,” Van Niel said. “It’s just the amount of isolation. Of course you can talk to your family, but if you’re in a situation where there’s not much in your life and you can’t see anyone for a year, which is what a lot of these older people are in that situation, it can create a serious mental illness that wasn’t there before.”

Both Brokamp and Sayres Van Niel said they have gotten more requests for clients during the pandemic than ever before, signaling that there is a national need for mental health care.

“We’ve already lost almost half a million people,” Sayres Van Niel said. “I think it’s easy to argue that this is the most serious national trauma we’ve been through as a country, emotionally and economically. We’ve even surpassed the number of people who have died in wars.”

Adriana is a reporter and editor covering politics and health care policy for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @adrianambells.

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