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Why Our Mental Health Won't Just Go Back to Normal When the Pandemic Is Over

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Key Takeaways

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci recently spoke about the inevitable long-term mental health effects of the COVID pandemic, a sentiment echoed by mental health professionals.
  • Essential workers, parents, people of color, and LGBTQ individuals are among those who have experienced an especially high risk of poor mental health over the past year.
  • It will take time to overcome the trauma of the pandemic and its fallout, but there are healthy ways to mitigate painful symptoms.

In a recent interview with CBS News, Dr. Anthony Fauci expressed his concern for people’s mental health post-pandemic. When asked if he was concerned about a mental health pandemic, Dr. Fauci said he was “very much so.”

He added, “That’s the reason why I want to get the virological aspect of this pandemic behind us because the long-term ravages of this are so multifaceted."

The interview referenced a recent study from the American Psychological Association (APA) looking at the mental and physical health of Americans one year into the pandemic. Three in four adults surveyed reported high stress levels related to the pandemic.

As vaccine distribution continues and an end nears—though exactly when remains unclear—a finally relevant question has emerged: What will life after the pandemic look and feel like?

Along with Dr. Fauci, mental health professionals caution that the “feel” aspect of that inquiry may not immediately, or anytime soon, be sunshine and rainbows. “Although circumstances will improve in some ways and the world will open up again, the results of the pandemic may still negatively impact mental health,” says Shemiah Derrick, a licensed professional counselor and certified alcohol and drug counselor.

Grief is huge. Trying to manage grief on a number of fronts—[such as] grief of loved ones, relationships, the ability to engage in meaningful activities, and hit life milestones, will be around for a while," Derrick says.

Annie M. Henderson, a certified professional life coach and licensed professional counselor, concurs: “Just as coming to grips with the pandemic was difficult, there may be an adjustment period once the pandemic ends.”

How Our Mental Health Has Fared During The Pandemic 

To understand the pandemic’s long-term mental health impact, it’s critical to first look at how people’s mental health has changed since it began. In an August 2020 survey from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 26.3% of people reported experiencing symptoms of trauma- or stress-related disorders. Also, 13.3% of participants reported starting or increasing the use of substances to cope with stress.

Over the past year, everyone has been susceptible to worsening mental health, but certain groups have experienced a higher risk. The APA found that 34% of essential workers have received treatment from a mental health professional, compared to 12% of non-essential workers. Additionally, 25% of essential workers have received a mental health disorder diagnosis since the pandemic began, compared to 9% for others.

Shemiah Derrick, LPC, CADC

Although circumstances will improve in some ways and the world will open up again, the results of the pandemic may still negatively impact mental health.

— Shemiah Derrick, LPC, CADC

People of color are another broad group of individuals facing increased challenges from the pandemic. A report from the CDC found that the percent of American deaths by COVID of Hispanic, Latino, Black, Native Americans, and Alaska Native people was disproportionately high compared to the population. The ADA also found that 78% of Hispanic people and 76% of Black people reported undesired sleep changes, compared to 63% of white people.

In the previously mentioned August 2020 report from the CDC, essential workers and people of color were more likely to report feeling suicidal in the past 30 days. This was true for 18.6% of Hispanic people, 15.1% of Black people, and 21.7% of essential workers.

Parents are also at a higher risk for mental health issues during the pandemic. Of those who participated in the APA survey, 48% of parents reported higher stress levels during the pandemic, compared to 31% of adults without kids.

Evidence shows that LGBTQ people are also disproportionately dealing with the pandemic’s mental health impact. In a recent study from the Kaiser Family Foundation, 74% of LGBTQ people reported that the pandemic hurt their mental health. Of those surveyed, LGBTQ people were also more likely to say the negative impact has been major, 49% to 23%.

Physical Health Has Also Suffered

On top of the mental health impact, Dr. Fauci warned of the physical health effects people may experience. “Many people have put off routine types of medical examinations that they normally would have done,” Dr. Fauci said. “I hope we don't see an increase in some preventable situations that would not have happened if people had the normal access to medical care, which clearly was interrupted by the shutdown associated with COVID-19.”

The APA study showed that 47% of Americans delayed or canceled health services during the pandemic. On top of that, 53% of Americans reported being less physically active than they desired over the past year.

The Long-Term Mental Health Impact

Anyone who has experienced mental health issues or stress knows that the moment a trigger goes away is not the same instance your well-being improves. “These disorders don’t just disappear as quickly as they came,” says Henderson, about the increase in mental health disorders diagnosed in the past year.

Closure hasn’t been easy to obtain during the pandemic, making it harder to process trauma. “Grief can be traumatic to begin with, but when crucial elements like support during the illness and at the funeral, along with getting to be with your loved ones as they grieve, have been all but eliminated, there is going to be a long-lasting impact,” says Henderson.

Pain from changed plans or forgoing specific goals can take time to adjust to and recalibrate post-pandemic. The process to improve your mental health can be even more difficult when no solution exists. “Grief over having lost someone is a much larger challenge because there is no definitive solution,” says Derrick. “Paired with a sense of loss and disconnection in many other ways, it can lead to depression, persistent hopelessness, and anxiety due to not really being able to know what to expect moving forward.”

Leela R. Magavi, MD

Individuals who endure cumulative grief may feel inundated with confusion, guilt, despair, and even physical pain. Losing multiple loved ones in a short period of time can be more difficult to cope with and process.

— Leela R. Magavi, MD

For people who have lost multiple loved ones due to the pandemic, the process of healing may take even longer. “Cumulative grief encompasses the loss of multiple loved ones concurrently or the loss of a loved one in the midst of processing a prior loss,” says Dr. Leela R. Magavi, a Johns Hopkins-trained adult, adolescent, and child psychiatrist and regional medical director for Community Psychiatry, California's largest outpatient mental health organization.

“Individuals who endure cumulative grief may feel inundated with confusion, guilt, despair, and even physical pain. Losing multiple loved ones in a short period of time can be more difficult to cope with and process," Magavi says.

Magavi adds that a person may stay in a stage of denial for longer when facing multiple losses in a short time.

Caring For Your Mental Health Moving Forward

Life will never again look the same as it did when you rang in 2020. “We've all at one point referred to ‘getting back to normal’ but with so many changes and losses, it is actually impossible to ‘get back’ to where we were,” says Derrick. Things would have changed over this period with or without the pandemic but, with life seemingly on pause and unwanted changes occurring, it can feel harder to accept what life looks like on the other side.

The most important thing you can do is give yourself time to heal at your own pace. For those grieving, it may help to create your own form of closure. “If individuals have lost someone, they could celebrate their loved one’s life by recounting memorable moments, looking through photographs, partaking in his or her favorite activity, or perhaps even writing a letter,” says Magavi. 

As for families, the effect this time may have on children can not be overlooked but can be worked through. There are many interactive and hands-off ways to help your child better their mental health during and after the pandemic.

“Parents could encourage their children to make their own schedules with fun activities such as video chatting with their buddies or completing a puzzle with mom or dad,” says Magavi. “Parents could involve their children in mindfulness and other wellness activities inclusive of coloring, listening to music, diaphragmatic breathing, or exercising.”

If your child has experienced loss, even if they appear fine, Magavi recommends considering a visit with a therapist to help them process their emotions of the past year. “Children’s age, temperament, coping skills, and degree of social support impact their response to trauma. While some children exhibit traumatic stress, others do not,” says Magavi.

You can’t discount your well-being while helping your kids navigate their emotions. For starters, self-care helps them too. “Not only do [parents] deserve it and need it, but this is irrefutably beneficial to their children and may be the most imperative way to support them during this distressing pandemic,” says Magavi.

For parents and all adults, there are many ways to care for your mental health:

  • Know that you’re not alone. You will not find someone who the pandemic has not impacted. Others may appear to be getting back to normal around you. However, not only does everyone heal at their own pace based on their experiences, but appearances can also be deceiving. Focus on your own mental health journey and well-being. “Know yourself and realize it isn’t a race. As some people may be rushing to jump back into big gatherings, you may have some PTSD that comes up and want to take things slower,” says Henderson.
  • Think about what you want life to look like moving forward. “My patients have conveyed that the pandemic has helped them think about what they want more than what society expects,” says Magavi. You have control over what normal now looks like for you and what you want from life.
  • Practice mindfulness. As you navigate a more open, social world, continue to take time for yourself. You can do this through methods such as mediation or composing a gratitude list about things in your life. As you take back more control of your life, be mindful of to who and what you give your energy.

What This Means For You

One takeaway says it all: Remind yourself that what you’ve experienced is a huge, traumatic thing. Acknowledging to ourselves that we have just been through a historic, traumatizing event is the first step in being okay with and realizing that we might not automatically bounce back once the pandemic ends,” says Henderson. “Whatever you are feeling is okay.”

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Article Sources
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  1. One year later, a new wave of pandemic health concerns. American Psychological Association. Published March 11, 2021.

  2. Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation During the COVID-19 Pandemic - United States, June 24–30, 2020. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published August 13, 2020.

  3. The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on LGBT People. KFF. Published March 11, 2021.