The Impact of Covid-19 on Mental Health in America

The Covid-19 Pandemic has taken a heavy toll on all Americans- those with pre-existing mental illness as well as those who have never experienced symptoms of mental illness at all.

What is Mental Health?

In layman’s terms, mental health encompasses emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It influences how we think, feel, act, make choices, and connect to other people. The World Health Organization (WHO) constitution states that “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” WHO explains that mental health is not only the absence of mental disorders, and that it is a “state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community. Mental health is fundamental to our collective and individual ability as humans to think, emote, interact with each other, earn a living and enjoy life.”

Mental Health Pre-pandemic

According to the National Institute of Mental Health¹ (NIH), a serious mental illness (SMI) is defined as a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder resulting in serious functional impairment, which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.

They use the term “any mental illness”, or AMI, when referring to a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder. AMI can vary in impact, ranging from no impairment to mild, moderate, and even severe impairment.

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) defines mental health services as “having received inpatient treatment/counseling or outpatient treatment/counseling, or having used prescription medication for problems with emotions, nerves, or mental health”.

In the year of 2019, there were roughly 51.5 million adults aged 18 or older in the United States reported to have AMI. This number represented 20.6% of all U.S. adults. Of those, only 23.0 million (44.8%) received mental health services in the year prior.

In addition, there were approximately 13.1 million adults aged 18 or older in the United States with a serious mental illness, making up 5.2% of all US adults. Of those, only 8.6 million (65.5%) received mental health treatment in the past year.

Keep in mind that these statistics exclude developmental and substance use disorders.

Before Covid-19, over 44 million Americans (or 19%) were experiencing a mental health illness (AMI), with 4.13% of adults reported to be experiencing a serious mental illness (SMI). Additionally, the percentage of those experiencing suicidal ideation had increased 0.15% from the year prior.

Mental Health During Pandemic

Since the onset of the Covid-19 Pandemic, mental health issues and suicide rates have sky-rocketed. The negative impact on the mental health of individuals in America stem from a wide range of factors, including: social distancing, loss of employment, transition to remote work, school closings and losing loved ones to Covid. This list is by no means an all-encompassing look at factors that are contributing to mental illness during the Pandemic.

Those with existing mental health issues report relapse on initial diagnosis and a dramatic exacerbation of existing symptoms. Nationwide shutdowns and lockdowns have forced people back into the very environments and situations that led to their illnesses in the first place. The fact that these protocols were put in place to keep them protected does not negate the detrimental impact on their health.

Those without pre-existing mental health issues have experienced them at alarming rates for the first time. This can be attributed to situational emergency-induced mental illness. During the pandemic, about 4 in 10 adults in the U.S. have reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder. This is in comparison to 1 in 10 adults the previous year.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 40% of US adults have reported to be struggling with some aspect of their mental health and/or substance abuse during this time. The report also shows that 1 in 4 people in the 18-24 age bracket have seriously considered committing suicide at some point during the month of June 2020.

The World Health Organization (WHO)² reports key facts regarding mental health during emergencies:

  • Almost all people affected by emergencies will experience psychological distress, which for most people will improve over time.
  • Among people who have experienced war or other conflict in the previous 10 years, one in 11 (9%) will have a moderate or severe mental disorder.
  • One person in five (22%) living in an area affected by conflict is estimated to have depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.
  • Depression tends to be more common among women than men.
  • Depression and anxiety become more common as people get older.
  • People with severe mental disorders are especially vulnerable during emergencies and need access to mental health care and other basic needs.
  • International guidelines recommend services at a number of levels ̶ from basic services to clinical care ̶ and indicate that mental health care needs to be made available immediately for specific, urgent mental health problems as part of the health response.
  • Despite their tragic nature and adverse effects on mental health, emergencies have shown to be opportunities to build sustainable mental health systems for all people in need.

If you have struggled with mental illness your whole life, or are experiencing depression and anxiety for the first time, you are not alone. There are resources available to you. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)* offers an informational guide as well as resources specific to Covid-19 here.

¹NAMI started as a small group of families gathered around a kitchen table in 1979 and has blossomed into the nation’s leading voice on mental health. Today, we are an alliance of more than 600 local Affiliates and 48 State Organizations who work in your community to raise awareness and provide support and education that was not previously available to those in need.

²WHO is the lead agency in providing technical advice on mental health in emergency situations. In 2019 WHO is operational on mental health in a range of countries and territories affected by large-scale emergencies such as Bangladesh, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Nigeria, South Sudan, the Syrian Arab Republic, Turkey, Ukraine and the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

WHO co-chairs the IASC Reference Group on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings that provides advice and support to organizations working in emergencies.

The Organization works globally to ensure that the humanitarian mental health response is both coordinated and effective, and that following humanitarian emergencies, all efforts are made to build/rebuild mental health services for the long-term.

WHO’s advice and tools are used by most large international humanitarian organizations active in mental health. WHO and partners have published a range of practical tools and guidelines to meet the mental health needs of people affected by emergencies.

Written by 

Chanel attended school for Journalism with a focus on fashion and music. She has been writing creatively and blogging since 2013 and has been published in LOLO Magazine and the Brookhaven Courier.