The Impacts COVID-19 Has Had On Mental Health (And How To Cope)


(Image Credit: Getty Images; via Conde Nast Traveler)

Danielle Murray, Media Manager

A year ago, COVID-19 drastically changed the lives of everyone around the world. Our bustling cities became eerily quiet as our close-knit small towns shut their doors to neighbors and friends. We all remember those haunting photos of an empty Time Square that surfaced as the lockdowns first started almost a year ago in March. Ever since those first moments, masks and social distancing became the new norm as the entire world tried to wait out these unprecedented times. For some, the new restrictions were easy to handle and they continued with their lives with a hopeful attitude. For others, this past year has been filled with trying times and has been the ultimate test to their mental and physical wellbeing. 

There’s no denying it, COVID-19 has had drastic impacts on mental health. Prior to the pandemic, about one in five American adults had reported experiencing some sort of mental illness in a year. During the pandemic, this ratio has increased to one in three US adults. By mid-July, 53% of American adults reported that their mental health had been negatively affected by the stress of the coronavirus, that’s a 21% increase from March. Some of the more specific results from this study show that 36% reported difficulty sleeping, 32% found difficulty eating, 12% said that their chronic conditions were worsening, and 12% also reported an increase in alcohol consumption and/or substance abuse. 

However, as of August of 2020, the percentage of US adults reporting new or increased substance usage due to the pandemic has increased by 1.3%. This study also revealed that 10.7% of adults reported experiencing suicidal thoughts within the past 30 days as of the time the study was taken.

Feelings of isolation and loneliness are also very prevalent during this time as everyone tries their best to stay at home and social distance. In 2018, Cigna conducted a study that revealed that 46% of US adults ‘sometimes or always feel alone’ and 47% report sometimes or always feeling ‘left out’. As you could imagine, these numbers can only be higher now, as many haven’t physically seen their friends or extended family in almost a year.

Feelings of isolation can alter the way our brains function and process information. Studies using brain scans have shown that feeling excluded or left out, activates the same areas of our brains that respond to physical pain. This means that if someone is chronically lonely, they might begin to process the actions of others, or the world, as an act of malice and react irrationally because of that. Loneliness can also be a catalyst for many mental illnesses (even for those who have never experienced any symptoms prior), such as anxiety, depression, psychosis, and substance abuse. Feelings of isolation are also known to raise the risk of suicidal thoughts. Loneliness or feelings of rejection can be hard to beat, as loneliness often limits one’s desire for seeking social connection, but it is not impossible to beat.

One popular remedy to the feelings of isolation the pandemic has brought on is scheduling phone calls or video chats with family and friends. Creating a weekly game night with friends using platforms such as Zoom or Discord can help bring a sense of community and regularity during these uncertain times. During the warmer weather, or if the chilly winter doesn’t bother you, you could plan a get together with friends at a local park and have a socially distanced lunch. Planning a drive-in movie outing with friends could be another fun way to beat the feelings of isolation.

It is also key to remember that you are not alone. Many people around the world feel isolated and lonely. You are not an oddity in your feelings. If you ask a friend, chances are they’ll say that they’ve been feeling the same way. Reaching out for help is always important if you are feeling extremely lonely. Many therapists and counselors are offering online sessions via phone call or video chats and would be happy to extend their services to you. Help is always available.

For those who have preexisting medical conditions, especially mental conditions, the pandemic has been a nightmare. Those whose mental health is already compromised are at a greater risk of experiencing their symptoms worsening. Because of this, it is extremely important to prioritize self-care. But what does self-care actually look like during a pandemic? What self-care is can look different from person to person, but here are some examples that work for the majority of people: meditation or mindfulness, exercising, journaling, taking any medication you’re prescribed regularly, staying connected with co-workers, family, and friends, creating a steady routine, taking time off of social media, and creating a reliable sleep schedule. 

It is important to also be patient with yourself. Be kind to yourself and those around you. These are unprecedented times, everyone is trying their best. Allow yourself and others the grace to make mistakes, slip up, and do the wrong thing every once in a while. It’s important to not overwhelm yourself with tasks and create a new routine out of nothing. Focus on one area and run with it. Improve yourself and your well-being little by little to create long-lasting change.

If you find yourself feeling hopeless, Aimee Falchuk (founder of The Falchuk Group) has some advice for you, “try not to fight it but rather let [yourself] feel it. I think it can teach us something […] let the energy move. Hopelessness is [a] form of feeling stuck or trapped […] when we move the energy […] we start to feel something. And if we are feeling something, we may feel more alive—and more hopeful.” She also suggests that gratitude and thankfulness is a good solution to hopelessness. Try to take a moment and be thankful for something every day. You could be thankful for the weather, for your favorite show or song, for a friend, or even just the fact that you have another chance to be/feel better. As always, reach out for help if you feel as if you can’t help yourself effectively.

For everyone out there, it’s important to remember that it’s okay not to feel happy right now. It’s okay to wish things were different. Feeling these negative emotions are important, even if it’s painful or uncomfortable. It’s okay to feel angry and sad, but it’s vital to not lose hope. Remember that there was a time before the COVID-19 pandemic and there will be a time after. Who knows what the world will look like after the vaccines are given to everybody and after the restrictions are lifted completely. The world will probably be different, but ‘different’ isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Change is the catalyst for bigger and better things.

This pandemic will not last forever. The sun will shine after the storm has ended. In the meantime, it’s important to look after yourself and those around you. If you or someone you know is struggling, reach out to help them or yourself. Help is always out there.