The rise of mental health symptoms during quarantine is caused by more than just the stress of current events
COVID has only exasperated issues that have plagued society for decades
I’m sitting in my bathtub with all the lights turned off. Tears are streaming down my face as my mind races at a million miles a minute. “I’m a failure, I mess everything up, I’m afraid to lose everyone I care about, I wish I wasn’t here.”
I’m having a panic attack.
In an hour, I’ll feel fine again. I’ll be able to get back to work and finish my chores or homework before bed. But, I’ll also feel mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted.
Then I will likely have another panic attack in a couple days.
When I was six-years-old, I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, so panic attacks have been a norm for me, even before the pandemic. I finally started taking anxiety medication about a year ago, and that changed my life for a short period of time. Before the medication, I only had an appetite to eat one small meal a day and I slept for about three hours each night. Afterwards, I could finally eat and sleep normally. My panic attacks stopped, I made many new friends, I started streaming on Twitch, and continued to grow as a journalist.
I was the most content I had ever been in my entire life. I thought I could finally live the life I had always only dreamed of.
Then, quarantine started and I found myself spiraling back to where I started. Many of my friends also experienced similar setbacks. As time went on, I began to wonder if there was a bigger trend going on here and what it could possibly mean.
I slowly learned that there is a bigger trend and the pandemic was only emphasizing the major problems within our society that contributed to mental health problems.
According to a survey conducted between June 24-30 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 41% of U.S. adults experience at least one adverse mental or behavioral condition. Out of that 41%, 31% reported symptoms of anxiety and depression, 26% reported symptoms of trauma or stressor-related disorder related to the pandemic, 13% reported increased substance abuse and 11% reported considering suicide within the 30-days before taking the survey.
The percentage of adults considering suicide was also much higher among 18 to 24-year-olds, minorities, caregivers and essential workers. The report also says “symptoms of anxiety disorder and depressive disorder increased considerably in the U.S. from April–June of 2020, compared with the same period in 2019.”
In addition to this, a report from the World Health Organization conducted from June to August in 130 countries revealed a “widespread disruption of many kinds of critical mental health services.” Even though reported symptoms were increasing significantly, it has become more difficult to receive the proper healthcare needed.
But these problems did not start with the pandemic.
Although COVID has contributed to higher rates of symptoms and the increased struggles to receive care, correlation does not mean causation. For example, in the same report, the WHO said that “prior to the pandemic, countries were spending less than 2% of their national health budgets on mental health, and struggling to meet their populations’ needs.”
Catherine P. Cook-Cottone, a UB counseling professor in the School and Educational Psychology, says that even before COVID, young college students typically experience increased risks of eating disorders, substance use and other mental and behavioral health issues. This is because college is a transitional period filled with uncertainty. Unlike high school students, college students may not live near family, and have more options and freedoms. These changes can be both liberating and stressful.
This natural period of uncertainty has been made even more difficult not just because of COVID, but also because of social isolation, political problems, social unrest and the consistently poor economic conditions.
“My hypothesis would be that it is the features of this current time [such as] the uncertainty, isolation and technology filter that are exacerbating already difficult transitions and changing what we can see as our future outcomes [such as] ‘will I get a job?’ [or] ‘what’s going to happen to our economy, our government, and all that when I get done?’” Cook-Cottone said. “That creates a set of risk factors that would drive dysregulation. So, the part of the brain that responds to threat and concern gets activated. Then, the part of the brain that tries to organize things, to look forward to the future and to create a sense of certainty ends up being less activated.”
Michael Rembis, the Director of the Center for Disability Studies at UB, says the isolation and lack of access to healthcare as two main reasons for why mental health statistics have risen significantly during COVID.
“I think prevalence of mental health issues and things like suicide and overdose [have increased] are because people don’t have access to peer support networks and forms of group therapy and other forms of therapy they might have had before the pandemic. They might not have access to maintenance medications,” Rembis said.
Steven L. Dubovsky, chair of the UB Psychiatry Department, also says COVID has caused a significant increase in mental health issues, and isolation plays a major role.
“There is no question that the number of new cases of anxiety, depression and substance abuse have gone up under COVID, and there are several reasons for this,” Dubovsky said. “For substance abuse, since they locked everyone down and declared that liquor stores and cannabis distributors are essential businesses, you can’t go to the movies, you can’t go to a restaurant, you can’t go work out, you can’t see your friends, but you can go to the pot store or liquor store. [And] why are so many more people depressed? Because of that same isolation.”
But, similarly to Cook-Cottone, Rembis said that these issues only increase problems that were already there.
“I think there has been significant progress made in the past 50 years or so, but there’s still a tremendous amount of stigma that surrounds mental illness,” Rembis said. “People don’t like to admit that they deal with mental health issues, or that they have family who have mental health issues.”
Along with the stigma of mental illness itself, Rembis also says that most people with mental health issues are ignored because they are part of minority groups.
“I think most people [with mental health issues], either as a result of having mental health issues or as a result of other factors in their lives, are people who are marginalized in society [such as] people of color, poor people, homeless people, people who incarcerated, and addicts,” Rembis said. "These are the people who are marginalized in our society and don’t often become the topic of conversation.”
Rembis says it’s hard to say if this is the first time mental health issues have increased this much, since mental health problems are historically unreported. He thinks it is more likely there have been similar increases during other catastrophic events such as World War I, World War II, the Great Depression and the Civil War, but that we did not have the institutions and structures we have in place now to measure those statistics.
Dubovsky says the silence regarding mental health issues leads to people not realizing the problems that were there, and the recent attempts to be more vocal have made the existence of these issues visible now more than ever. Some people continue to remain silent about their mental health struggles, however, it could keep them from obtaining certain benefits like life insurance.
Even though these problems existed before the pandemic, people still need ways to cope with the increased stressors COVID has brought. Cook-Cottone says the best way to deal with the uncertainty and isolation is to keep engaging in the world around you even as we are separated by either social distancing or our computer screens.
Whenever my anxiety spikes, I hang out with my friends virtually over Discord, which is a social media platform. Even when I feel like I am too exhausted or stressed to interact with anyone, a couple hours of watching films, playing video games and just talking with my friends always makes me feel better.
Keep scheduling “pleasant events” like watching a film with your friends over the internet so that you have something certain to look forward to. Don’t stop going to class or participating in clubs and keep focusing on and engaging with the people and things you care about.
“We need to remember there are things that are going to be pretty big and overwhelming that we can’t control and right now there’s a lot of them, so [it’s important to allow] ourselves to feel what’s happening and [acknowledge it],” Cook-Cottone said. “And then saying, ‘because this is more than I think human beings have had to deal with for a long time, I can get help and it’s okay for me to need help. This isn’t what the normal college experience is like and it’s okay for me to reach out and find someone to talk to.’”
Anastasia Wilds is an assistant arts editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @AnastasiaWilds