How the Coronavirus Pandemic Is Affecting Mental Health, According to Therapists

Key Takeaways

  • Mental health experts across the United States are raising concerns about the effect that the COVID-19 pandemic could have on the population's mental health—both in the short- and long-term.
  • Top concerns include long-term isolation, trauma, job loss, limited access to supportive resources for people with mental illness and addiction, and the potential for increased rates of depression, anxiety, substance use disorders, and suicide.
  • Experts also pointed out that there could be positive effects to the "new normal" if people rethink their priorities, find creative solutions to problems, and develop a deeper sense of empathy and altruism.

Whether you’re stressed about your financial situation or you’re struggling to help your kids do their school work from home, the coronavirus pandemic has likely caused some upheaval in your life. If you’re not careful, the stress of the situation can take a serious toll on your psychological well-being.

We interviewed several mental health experts from across the U.S. and asked them to weigh in on the trends they’re seeing and find out how the pandemic affects their own mental health. Here’s what they had to say.

Are there any trends in mental health that you find concerning right now?

"I really do worry about the long-term ripple effects of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and relationship violence. All of these tend to trend upward when we have economic upheaval and increased unemployment, not to mention the trauma that comes with widespread loss and the threat of illness.

"This time around, we are dealing with a crisis whose very nature demands that we go without the usual coping mechanisms that can help us heal, such as gathering with our friends and extended families and becoming more interdependent within our neighborhoods and communities."

Andrea Bonior, licensed clinical psychologist and author of Detox Your Thoughts

"I am most concerned about the rising depression levels of people I'm seeing from being in long-term isolation. We need to be isolated for the sake of physical health and stopping the spread of the virus.

"However, people who were already struggling with being estranged from family members, struggling with co-parenting, or living with difficult family members are seeing their problems intensify.

Mary Tatum, LMHC

Depression and anxiety can act like barometers that tell us something is not right here. So naturally, when we experience problems that intensify without the relievers we are used to, we will experience an increase in anxiety and depression. This is because we are grieving that life is not the same as it used to be.

— Mary Tatum, LMHC

"Not only are these problems intensifying, but the regular stress relievers that people are used to, such as going to the gym, nightlife, and even AA and NA meetings, are no longer available.

"Deeper depression symptoms have set in a bit heavier now that the adrenaline rush of the initial quarantine phase has worn off and the fear that normal life may not return as quickly as we hoped has set in."

—Mary Tatum, licensed mental health counselor

"We knew that all was not right with our kids prior to the corona pandemic: they were recognized as the most stressed, lonely, and risk-averse of any previous American generation. Teen anxiety, depression, and suicide rates were rising in an unprecedented fashion and had begun affecting younger kids, as well. And then a pandemic hit.

"Research is clear: prolonged adversity always exacerbates preexisting mental health issues. Our kids are facing issues that rock their foundations. They tell me they worry about their family members’ health, their parents’ economic well-being, as well as their futures (college scholarships, personal safety about leaving home). Once those school doors reopen, our stressed-out generation will be even more anxious, lonely, and depressed."

Michele Borba, educational psychologist and author of UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World

"As I look forward, I’m more concerned about adults than children. I’m not suggesting that kids aren’t suffering or that they won’t face challenges on the other side of the pandemic, but I suspect they’ll be more resilient. Right now, their caretakers and educators are in survival mode.

"Many are numb and not particularly tapped into their interior lives. But when the immediate threat passes, I think many will fall apart. People are walking around with so much stress, from concerns about health to finances to balancing competing work and home demands.

"They’re worrying about ailing parents and strained marriages and failing businesses and their kids’ education and social-emotional well-being. It’s just a lot. And everyone from parents to teachers has been telling me they feel like they’re failing at everything.

Phyllis Fagell, LCPC

I won’t be surprised if we see an uptick in depression and anxiety among adults. Of course, even the most resilient child will be negatively impacted if their parent isn’t doing well. It’s all interrelated.

— Phyllis Fagell, LCPC

"And I suspect that even after social distancing policies are loosened, there will be parents who are too fearful to let their kids go to a public park or birthday party or even return to school.

"As a result, I won’t be surprised if I see an uptick in issues such as separation anxiety, school refusal, or obsessive-compulsive and perfectionist tendencies. Kids who currently feel no sense of control over their destiny might over-compensate when schools reopen."

Phyllis Fagell, psychotherapist, school counselor, and author of Middle School Matters

"My husband told me yesterday that three friends of his friends (all entrepreneurs) have died by suicide in the last few weeks. There’s a palpable hopelessness that many people are feeling as the value and revenue that they derive from being a working member of society has become compromised. Without a known end, many don’t see a way out of the hole they are in.

"Elderly people and people living alone have to cope with loneliness on several accounts. They aren’t able to be with someone in their physical space, and they also don’t experience physical touch—a hug from a grandchild, someone holding their hand, etc.

"For kids, there’s also a problem with ends and beginnings. As a parent of a fifth grader, where a full month of celebrations and end-of-elementary school markers are typical, we are now seeing the cancellation or a reconfiguration of these anticipated milestones.

"With two nieces who are in 12th grade, we are seeing the lack of needed endings as well—where the return to in-person school is unlikely, and 13 years of school just sort of 'fade out' instead of ending with a bang."

Robyn Silverman, PhD

These same kids, on the cusp of college, are wondering what life will look like for them in the fall. College is not just about the classes. But for many, it’s the beginning of more independence and adulthood.

— Robyn Silverman, PhD

"Thousands of kids have been anticipating living in a dorm away from the nest they’ve been in for the last 18 years. For many, this is a rite of passage. Can you imagine how it must feel to prepare to spread your wings and then have them clipped right before you are about to fly?

"Interestingly, when it comes to anxiety, I’m starting to hear a buzz of children who have gotten so comfortable with online learning and being with family 24/7 that they would prefer not to go back to school. There is no drama, no distractions, no strict schedule, etc.

"The anxiety of returning and giving up this relaxed feel of virtual schooling, coupled with the probability of new pandemic-related rules (masks in classrooms, stricter hygiene, and social distancing in schools), will likely trigger anxiety in many children."

Robyn Silverman, PhD, host of How to Talk to Kids About Anything

"I am most concerned about a few issues:

  • Increased suicide rates
  • Worsening mood and anxiety in individuals who do not usually struggle with their mental health (but COVID-19 has thrown them into a downward spiral of negative emotion/isolation)
  • Job loss or severe stress
  • Increased use of drugs and alcohol
  • Heightened anxiety and depression with less access to treatment except online."

Uma Naidoo, MD, director of nutritional & lifestyle psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School faculty member, and author of This Is Your Brain On Food

What are some of the ways the pandemic could have a positive impact on the field of mental health?

"For some people, this has made them reevaluate their priorities and reminded them of what their truest values are—how they most want to spend their time, what people they value most in their lives, and how much as a society we are all interconnected.

"I think it can lead to a larger dialogue about how crucial social connections are for mental health and about how loneliness seriously needs to be addressed."

—Andrea Bonior, PhD

"The good news is that there is still a lot we can do even in a time of perceived helplessness and loss of control. Positive psychology specifically looks at how we can focus solely on the things we can control and how to maximize even the smallest victories.

"A unique aspect of this pandemic is it gives every human the opportunity to be a hero even if only in small ways. For example, we can help keep ourselves and others safe by cleaning, wearing masks, and practicing social distancing.

Mary Tatum, LMHC

Positive psychology research has shown that the positive feelings of altruism last much longer than the feelings derived from doing something pleasant or fun. In other words, altruism will lift your mood better and longer than seeking only pleasant mental distractions such as watching TV.

— Mary Tatum, LMHC

"I have clients who are managing their time and anxieties by knitting, crocheting, or crafting various gifts to send to nursing homes and hospital staff. There are so many simple ways that we can show empathy, compassion, and kindness right now."

—Mary Tatum, LMHC

"My hope is that parents and educators use this crisis as a watershed moment and recognize that children's mental health is in jeopardy and must be prioritized. Because we all are dealing with stress, mental health may finally be more destigmatized.

"I’m crossing my fingers (and toes) that we finally have a collective 'aha moment' and realize that grades and scores are not the magic sauce for success. Raising resilient, mentally healthy kids must become a top parenting priority so they are prepared for an uncertain world both now and later."

—Michele Borba, EdD

"I keep reminding parents that there’s no right way to parent during a pandemic, as none of us have done this before. The same, by the way, is true for educators, who also may be more likely than their students to collapse when things are a bit more normal.

"But here’s the silver lining. Research shows that having to endure forced periods of uncertainty can lead to greater satisfaction, gratitude, and flexibility later in life. Parents should take the pressure off of themselves to be home-schooling multitaskers, and focus instead on simply helping their child feel safe and loved."

—Phyllis Fagell, LCPC

"When I speak with my girlfriends, we are all admitting to stress, sadness, and frustration. We are all nodding our heads 'yes' and supporting each other with understanding; 'Yes, I feel that too. It makes sense to feel like that.'

Robyn Silverman, PhD

Of course, we will always have the parents who look like they have everything together, but I think people are letting their freak flag fly a bit more lately. It's not perfect—and that's OK.

— Robyn Silverman, PhD

"When I was little, my grandmother and I were stopped in front of the supermarket as the news was interviewing people on where they were when JFK was shot. While that was a single moment, it was a shared experience. I think of this pandemic like that—a shared experience brings people together."

—Robyn Silverman, PhD

"Some positives include the number of resources being openly shared in the media to support people, and celebrities are sharing their history and online resources (e.g. Michael Phelps). This has helped to reduce the stigma around mental health.

"First-line responders (doctors/nurses/EMTs/hospital staff) are addressing their emotions and sharing this with the public. Difficult emotions are being both acknowledged and 'normalized' by them being open—whereas such emotions may usually be shared 'only' with a psychiatrist or therapist.

"There is a focus on resilience, how we can overcome this, and how we can become stronger."

—Uma Naidoo, MD

How has the pandemic impacted your own mental health?

"I am struggling most with trying to balance all the needs that have arisen simultaneously. As a parent, I am six weeks into juggling working from home with three children underfoot with various schooling needs of their own. As a professor, I’ve had to scramble to transfer my classes online and meet the needs of a diverse set of students with challenges of their own.

"And as a therapist, I’ve had to make sure I am maintaining my own emotional balance so I can be fully present with my clients in their heightened sense of anxiety. It makes me prioritize trying to practice what I preach in terms of taking care of myself."

—Andrea Bonior, PhD

Mary Tatum, LMHC

I try to take one day at a time and focus on what I can control while being extra mindful about the small victories of the day.

— Mary Tatum, LMHC

"Both panic and calmness are contagious. Personally, I feel more anxious when I am around highly anxious people. I try to manage my own anxieties by keeping my mind on uplifting truths and stories of courageous people rather than allowing my brain to hyper-focus on the 'what-ifs' of the uncertain future."

—Mary Tatum, LMHC

"I had my own 'aha moment' that the steady onslaught of hearing dismal news affects my attitude. Turning off the news channel and listening instead to my music playlist has done wonders."

—Michele Borba, EdD

"I feel like I’m managing all the upheaval and disruption fairly well. But even so, my mind is perpetually foggy, the days have started to bleed together, and I’m worrying a great deal more than usual—about my parents, my children, my students, the general state of the world, and the list goes on.

"The good news is that I suspect people will emerge from the pandemic with more empathy. It’s an extreme situation, but it could end up normalizing that everyone loses their footing at times."

—Phyllis Fagell, LCPC

"For me, I miss being with friends—as it’s not quite the same on Zoom (especially for a hugger like me). I also miss the freedom of being able to go shopping without having to worry, travel with family, and have alone time when it’s needed.

"I worry about my Mom—who is 75 but couldn’t be happier that she is at least in a 55-and-older community where her friends are around (even if they are 6 feet apart). My family is figuring it out—we are finding pockets of time to be together and moments to be alone.

"My kids have become even tighter—as they are each other’s sole playmates right now! That warms my heart. But I had this epiphany in the middle of the night last night. I realized that in my quest to have some alone time in a home where there are always people, I wasn’t hugging my family as much as I typically did! We all know how important it is to hug people—for their sense of security, to know they are loved, and for their health!"

—Robyn Silverman, PhD

"It has not been easy! I had little time to 'get things together,' as my patients need me (meaning setting up virtual visits and restructuring how I do my work).

Uma Naidoo, MD

I had to program 'self-care' into my daily activities much more actively so that I do not burn out myself. I practice compassion toward myself as I am not perfect.

— Uma Naidoo, MD

"I am paying attention to how and what I eat more than ever. This is a good live experiment of my work in nutritional psychiatry!"

—Uma Naidoo, MD

What This Means For You

It’s important to monitor your mental health. If you’re struggling to manage your stress, contact your doctor or reach out to an online therapist for support. A mental health professional can assist you in finding ways to manage the distress you feel healthily.

If you suspect someone around you is experiencing anxiety, depression, or another mental health problem, try talking with them about it. Ask that person how they’re managing stress, and share any struggles you’ve experienced as well. You can even share some resources you found helpful. They may be more willing to seek professional help if you can give them information about doing so.

Press Play For Advice On Dealing With Anxiety

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares how to cope with pandemic-related anxiety.

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The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

By Amy Morin, LCSW, Editor-in-Chief
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and international bestselling author. Her books, including "13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do," have been translated into more than 40 languages. Her TEDx talk,  "The Secret of Becoming Mentally Strong," is one of the most viewed talks of all time.