Long after vaccines have tamed COVID-19’s physical impacts, its mental health effects will linger, a panel of experts said Wednesday, citing increased anxiety and depression, accelerated retirements of burnt-out doctors and nurses, and continuing emotional fallout for low-wage workers who toiled despite increased risks at grocery stores, food processing plants, and other essential businesses.
Experts from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), and the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation gathered for an hourlong online discussion of what may be one of the pandemic’s most painful if lesser-recognized effects.
COVID-19’s most severe physical impacts have been felt by the elderly, the experts said, but some of its worst mental health effects have emerged in children — isolated from friends and missing educational opportunities when they should be striking out and finding out about themselves — and young adults, many of whom are struggling with reduced wages and lost jobs layered on child-care and elder-care responsibilities.
“COVID is impacting the older age group more, but anxiety and depression are being faced by the young adults much more, which is exactly the opposite of what we’ve seen in some of the earlier crises,” according to Shekhar Saxena, professor of the practice of global mental health and former director of the World Health Organization’s Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse. “It’s the young adults and the children who are being impacted and the effects are going to be long-lasting.”
Ken Duckworth, NAMI’s chief medical officer, said that data showed that about one in five Americans suffered from some sort of mental illness before the pandemic, and that number is now two in five. Virtually every country has reported disruption in mental health services, though in some cases, as in the U.S., telehealth services have expanded to fill some of the void.
“It’s very clear through a very comprehensive CDC study, that that number is over two in five [Americans], for anxiety, depression, trauma. We’re seeing more kids visit emergency rooms and more kids receiving services,” Duckworth said, adding that, according to calls to the NAMI helpline, there’s also a substantial increase in people seeking help navigating the mental health care system for themselves or a loved one. “Across the board, we’re seeing that the pandemic has had a very substantial mental health impact.”
The event, “Mental Health in the Time of COVID-19,” was presented by the Chan School and NAMI. Chan School Dean Michelle Williams introduced the discussion, saying that even before the pandemic, mental health care was an area of need in the U.S. Now, after months of “the dire strain we are all under,” it has become even more acute, particularly among the young and disadvantaged.
“The past year has been terribly damaging to our collective mental health,” Williams said. “There is no vaccine for mental illness. It will be months, if not years before we are fully able to grasp the scope of the mental health issues born out of this pandemic. Long after we’ve gained control of the virus, the mental health repercussions will likely continue to reverberate.”