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Mental Health Issues, Suicidal Ideation Have Persisted Through Pandemic

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Key Takeaways

  • The decline in mental wellness due to the COVID-19 pandemic has continued, even as vaccines have become available.
  • Marginalized individuals and essential workers have been the most impacted.

Three months into 2021, we are still working our way through the COVID-19 pandemic and trying to cope with its negative effects. One of the major repercussions has been the blow to our collective mental health.

This decline began at the beginning of the crisis, and only grew as case numbers rose and stay-at-home orders lingered. According to a recent JAMA Network study, this decline in our mental health has persisted in the form of increased substance use, depression, and suicidal thoughts. As we approach the one-year anniversary of the WHO declaring COVID-19 a pandemic, it's clear that this has been the most significant mental health stressor many of us have faced in our lives.

What the Study Showed

This study was a follow-up of previous research tracking the overall decline in mental wellness earlier in the pandemic. The data was collected via an online survey, accounting for factors such as sex, age, sexual orientation, race/ethnicity, prior psychiatric diagnosis, and more.

The first study looked at individuals from April-June of 2020, with this follow up covering the months of August-September. Data also was collected regarding specific issues, such as increased suicidal ideation and substance use within the previous 30 days.

Amy Morin, LCSW

Social isolation has been a huge factor in the rise in mental health issues. From not having access to friends and family to not being able to attend support groups in person, loneliness has taken a toll on many people.

— Amy Morin, LCSW

The follow-up study showed little to no change in these mental health issues as the pandemic progressed. While firm data regarding the current state of our mental health may not be available at this time, it's likely that our collective mental health will not improve until we reach herd immunity and can return to some semblance of normalcy.

Contributing Factors

Social Isolation

There are several factors that can contribute to an individual dealing with increased suicidal thoughts and other issues during this time, including loss of income or general loneliness due to quarantine and stay-at-home orders.

Amy Morin, LCSW and editor-in-chief of Verywell Mind, says, “Social isolation has been a huge factor in the rise in mental health issues. From not having access to friends and family to not being able to attend support groups in person, loneliness has taken a toll on many people.”

Relationships also have been strained during this time, especially for those with loved ones who may be ill. “Many people have lost the things that gave them joy," Morin says. "Whether it's a kid who can't play their favorite sport or an adult who can no longer visit a loved one in a residential setting, the pandemic has taken away a sense of purpose for many people. And that's taken a toll on their psychological well-being."

Loss of Healthy Coping Mechanisms

For those navigating mental illness prior to the pandemic, there may have been useful coping skills that are not as readily available today. Going to the gym or having brunch with friends on a Sunday morning, for example, aren't safe options for everyone.

Morin says, “Many of the go-to coping skills people rely on to stay mentally healthy were taken away during the pandemic. Social distancing meant people couldn't go to the gym or see friends and family. Those are the types of activities that keep our moods stable and help us feel good."

Without those things, some people have turned to less-healthy options, like drinking or excessive social media use, Morin adds. Leaning on these options as coping mechanisms can, in turn, increase stress levels and further reduce mental health.

Who Is the Most Affected?

This pandemic did not create structural inequities, but it has highlighted them and helped show us how much work there is left to do when it comes to supporting our marginalized communities. Throughout the pandemic, research has shown that the Black and Latinx communities have faced an increased risk of COVID-related infection, hospitalization, and death.

As such, these communities may be at greater risk for mental health decline, in addition to the pre-existing issues of discrimination and a lack of economic stability.

Additionally, this study showed that issues with mental wellness were higher among participants with disabilities, as well as folks from the LGBTQ+ community.

When examining employment, the data also shows that individuals who are deemed essential workers, unemployed, or caregivers have higher levels of suicidal ideation, depression, and substance use. A real tragedy of this pandemic is that many of the people most affected by it on a daily basis are at the greatest risk of these secondary mental health effects.

What This Means For You

If you are struggling to make it through this time, you are not alone. There is a global decline in mental wellness, and many are having difficulty finding safe and accessible ways to navigate this unprecedented situation. Experts strongly suggest making and maintaining positive relationships during this time, even if it is just a phone call once a week.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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Article Sources
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  1. Czeisler MÉ, Lane RI, Wiley JF, Czeisler CA, Howard ME, Rajaratnam SMW. Follow-up survey of US adult reports of mental health, substance use, and suicidal ideation during the COVID-19 pandemic, September 2020JAMA Netw Open. Published February 19, 2021;4(2):e2037665. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.37665

  2. Czeisler MÉ , Lane RI, Petrosky E, et al. Mental health, substance use, and suicidal ideation during the COVID-19 pandemic — United States, June 24–30, 2020. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Published August 14, 2020;69:1049-1057. doi:10.15585/mmwr.mm6932a1