Content warning: Please be advised that this article contains mentions of suicidal ideation. If you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal thoughts, reach out for help immediately. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255, and is available 24/7.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought on many changes, from how we work to how we spend time with friends and family. Its effects on mental health are now fairly well-studied, but what does our collective mental health look like now that protective policies are slowly ending and life is returning to a new version of "normal." For some, mental health stress has not simply ended with the easing or conclusion of the systems to protect our physical health. In fact, many people are noticing similar or higher levels of anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders than they did before the pandemic, even as the threat of COVID-19 seems to decrease little by little.
This article will explore the known prolonged effects of COVID-19 on our mental health and how they may continue to affect us even as the world moves beyond pandemic life and into a new version of normalcy.
COVID-19 brought many challenges not just for physical health care but for mental health care, too. Researchers documented the many stressors on hospitals, essential workers, and public health, with hundreds of millions of total confirmed cases of COVID-19. However, they have also evaluated how the pandemic brought on challenges to public mental health, including the significant increase in diagnoses of anxiety, depression, sleep issues, PTSD, and other mental health conditions.
Before the pandemic, around 1 in 10 people reported experiencing anxiety or depressive disorders. After the beginning of the pandemic, that number skyrocketed up to about 1 in 4 people. Anxiety and depression have been some of the most common mental health conditions noted during the pandemic, but not the only ones. Instances of sleep problems, eating concerns, and other lifestyle factors were also affected. The number of people who reported increased alcohol or substance use also increased by 12%, as did experiences of chronic conditions, such as chronic migraines, heart issues, and chronic fatigue, worsened due to COVID-19-related stress.
These mental health conditions and symptoms have likely resulted from the many changes and stressors of the pandemic. Unemployment and job loss created financial instability that significantly impacted many people's mental health. Anxiety and stress over avoiding COVID-19 and preventing its spread brought similar effects on mental health. Social isolation from loved ones or even just coworkers was another adversity that produced higher rates of mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety, which are still being dealt with today as many continue to work from home or in limited contact with others.
Overall, the extreme stress of the COVID-19 pandemic has worn on the collective mental health of people in the U.S. and around the world, regardless of age or background. However, individuals in minority groups, those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and others with historical experiences of oppression reported even higher rates of these mental health conditions. Existing disparities became even more pronounced, affecting mental health as much as physical safety, or perhaps even more so, in some instances.
While regional and national limits on restrictions are becoming increasingly more popular, many of us are not feeling the relief that may have been expected of these changes. As regulations have been lifted, some people's anxiety and other mental health conditions have heightened once again, and many of us are left wondering what to do with this new normal.
Notably, those most affected by lingering mental health conditions related to the pandemic are often most at-risk. One study in Japan found that the mental health of university students was poorer at the beginning of the pandemic but reached pre-pandemic levels after about two years. However, mental health conditions in high-risk students, specifically those experiencing symptoms of suicidal ideation*, continued to grow throughout the pandemic. Other studies have found an association between worsened mental health symptoms and the extending pandemic.
*If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached 24/7 at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Please reach out immediately.
A great deal of research has been focused on how the initial stages of the pandemic affected mental health. However, more studies are needed to thoroughly understand the long-term effects of mental health as we begin to return to a more normal state. That said, several mental health conditions grew during the pandemic that may extend past the end of the pandemic, as we've seen.
Long-term or chronic stress, like that experienced throughout the past several years of the pandemic, can seriously affect mental and physical health. It raises the risk of certain conditions, such as high blood pressure and heart disease, while also developing or worsening conditions like depression and anxiety.
Similarly, some research points to the increased risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) of the pandemic. Frontline and healthcare workers, patients who experienced health fear and social isolation as loved ones were unable to visit them, and others may have a heightened risk of developing PTSD. Still, more research is needed before coming to a definitive conclusion.
As we see more changes in a return to normal, specifically lifting restrictions on mask mandates, social gatherings, public spaces, and others, some people notice heightened anxiety. Living in the in-between of strict policies and social flexibility, it's hard for some people to make the change back, especially those at risk and now might feel as though the world has moved on without concern for their safety. As we continue to notice changes, we need to be aware of and supportive of our collective and individual mental health.
The pandemic may have increased the challenges to your mental health, but that does not mean you cannot successfully manage these challenges. If you find yourself experiencing increased symptoms or new mental health conditions, remember that there are proven strategies for navigating these conditions. Consider some of the actions listed below that you can take to work on your mental health post-pandemic.
Not only does exercise protect you from some physical health concerns, but it is an effective and welcome treatment for many mental health conditions. Working out can decrease your risk of heart disease, manage blood sugar, and protect against some age-related diseases. It can improve focus, learning, judgment, and mood immediately and long term. Exercise is also a proven method against mental health conditions, specifically reducing anxiety, depression, and poor mood and lifting self-esteem.
Mindfulness is another strategy that has demonstrated an impressive ability to support mental wellness. Many studies have shown its effectiveness in preventing and treating anxiety, depression, and PTSD, among other benefits. Research has shown that mindfulness may be an effective measure against the mental health complications explicitly related to the COVID-19 pandemic, making it a great strategy to use in post-pandemic situations.
Connecting with your support system can help you bear the stresses of lifted restrictions and other issues relating to these later stages of the pandemic. Whether you connect with friends, family, or peers, building a strong support system is integral to managing mental health conditions in many cases successfully.
Mental health treatment should not be a last-stop option but rather a preventative and immediate choice regarding mental wellness. You do not have to be in an active crisis mode to seek mental health treatment. Seeking treatment to manage even minor worries or concerns that you notice can help you develop systems and strategies to navigate and healthily cope with larger stressors in various circumstances. If you see yourself experiencing increasing anxiety, depression, or symptoms of other conditions as the pandemic enters a new stage, learn more about treatment and the methods that may work best for you, be it talk therapy, medication, or some combination thereof.
Online therapy is an accessible and effective option. Because it takes place virtually eliminates the need for in-person sessions, protecting from possible COVID-19 exposures and other stress with transportation and limited time. It's also proven to be an effective treatment option during the COVID-19 pandemic, making it an excellent choice for managing COVID-19-related stressors and many mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, grief, PTSD, and many others.
If you're interested in learning more about online counseling, head to BetterHelp. Sign up at BetterHelp to connect with a licensed and experienced professional counselor who can help you work through stress, anxiety, depression, or whatever life goals you're reaching. BetterHelp therapy can be conducted from the comfort of your own home or wherever you have a stable internet or data connection available.
Any reaction to the pandemic is normal. As the pandemic ends and restrictions are lifted, you might feel like you should be relieved, unafraid, and ready to join the world in the way you did before it began. However, adjusting to new circumstances is difficult. The adjustment in and out of the pandemic is fraught with stressors that can lead to anxiety, among other potential symptoms and mental health conditions. In short, it's entirely normal to feel anxious after the pandemic, and you have a variety of treatment options to manage that anxiety.
COVID-19 has lingering effects on almost every aspect of our lives. The pandemic has lasting effects everywhere, from work to social experiences, physical health related to COVID-19 diagnosis, and more. Some of the lingering impacts of COVID-19 also include those on mental health, such as increased anxiety, depression, substance use, and symptoms of other mental health conditions.
The coronavirus pandemic affected our universal mental health as a nation and world, continuing to do so. Agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization reported increases in mental health conditions, including a 25% rise in the prevalence of depression and anxiety. You might notice mental health conditions have worsened or started since the pandemic began. That said, treatment options work for these mental health conditions and are accessible to people of all backgrounds.