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Experts Fear Ongoing Mental Health Crisis If COVID-19 Keeps Us Home This Winter

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Key Takeaways

  • As the COVID-19 pandemic continues into the fall and winter months, there is growing concern about the combined effect on mental health.
  • Isolation is not conducive to mental health.
  • There are ways to combat the collective negative feelings this winter.

The COVID-19 pandemic, and all the life changes that came with it, has had a universally negative effect on mental health. For some, there has been a tangible loss of family or friends, or in income or jobs. For others, the loss is less tangible, and the effects are connected to a lack of routine and stability.

Experts now worry how the winter months might exacerbate this crisis when cold weather, less sunlight, and increased isolation are factored in. It's important to pay attention to your emotions during this time, be kind to yourself, and seek professional help when you need it. Staying vigilant about the mental state of yourself and your loved ones will be critical in getting through this unprecedented time.

Uncertainty as a Cause of Depression

One of the hardest things for people has been the lack of solid information and the inability to plan. Because this is a novel virus, there was a lot of misinformation and confusion in the early spring when the pandemic began. Now, we are still learning new things each month that it continues, but there is also a leering question that no one has an answer to: when will this be over?

Not being able to plan for the future is really hard on people. Divya K. Chhabra, MD, a childhood adolescent psychiatry fellow and adult psychiatrist, says, “Another thing that can lead to depression is a lack of control. People can’t plan for their futures, because they have no idea when this is going to end.” 

Decreased Face-to-Face Communication

There is a lot of conversation around the concept of Zoom exhaustion, which is essentially a form of digital burnout due to the increased cognitive demands. Many companies and organizations are supplementing all of their previously in-person meetings and gatherings with Zoom or other video conference calls. While on the surface this seems like an effortless transition, it can actually be more draining to the participants. 

Prolonged Isolation

Another major factor in feelings of depression connected to COVID-19 is isolation. Self-isolation is a symptom of depression in any situation, but it becomes an even more dangerous issue when it's coupled with the mandatory isolation of quarantine.

Divya K. Chhabra, M.D.

Once someone starts to feel depressed, oftentimes the response is to be socially isolated. So then if you’re already feeling depressed, it might be harder to reach out to someone to talk or to reach out to connect in some sort of way, especially when you’re already confined to your home, so it’s a vicious cycle.

— Divya K. Chhabra, M.D.

“Feeling depressed and isolation can go hand in hand...Once someone starts to feel depressed, oftentimes the response is to be socially isolated. So then if you’re already feeling depressed, it might be harder to reach out to someone to talk or to reach out to connect in some sort of way, especially when you’re already confined to your home, so it’s a vicious cycle.” says Chhabra. 

Negative Impact of Winter Months

Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a common mood disorder that affects individuals at the same time every year, oftentimes in the winter months. It is thought that SAD is connected to the body’s natural rhythm and its reaction to sunlight. Because SAD is a subtype of depression, there is a feasible concern that this winter will bring compounded symptoms due to the presence of COVID-19-related depression.

Chhabra explains, “SAD is a real thing even when COVID isn’t there, and affects many people with symptoms that are similar to depression. When there is SAD you can still go outside - go to a restaurant, see other people - social things that are known to help with depression.” Because there is less opportunity to leave the home and safely engage in face-to-face social events, alternatives for positive interactions must be considered in order to manage symptoms.

What Can Help?

Try to Socialize When You Can

There is an overall recommendation from the CDC to continue social distancing and to self-quarantine if you have interacted with someone who has potentially been ill, but locations throughout the U.S. have different CDC mask regulations and social distancing guidelines due to the varied case rates and outbreak sites.

This can make it hard for many to maintain their social relationships with friends and family. Combine this with many work environments going completely virtual, and it is clear that 2020 has rid a lot of people of social interaction. Chhabra encourages those who are feeling the effects of this change to add some regularity to their days at home.

“Create some kind of support system that works for you and hold yourself accountable. It’s hard sometimes, [but] plan those things out and have a couple of zooms that you stick to. When it’s safe, see people in a safe way.” says Chhabra. 

Let Yourself Feel 

Many individuals are holding multiple responsibilities during this time, either to support their family or keep themselves afloat financially. These needs, alongside our inherent desire to stay productive even in the midst of a pandemic, can lead us to neglect our feelings.

Divya K. Chhabra, M.D.

Sometimes we harm ourselves more by trying to get rid of the sadness when you really just have to feel it and get through it.

— Divya K. Chhabra, M.D.

Chhabra says, “It’s okay to be sad, angry, or anxious. It’s okay to feel all of the things that you’re feeling. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to be happy. Especially in American society. And then we feel worse because we’re down on ourselves for feeling down. There’s a global pandemic - it would be odd if people weren’t down.

Don’t be hard on yourself if you have a bad day and you need to cry or if you aren’t your best self. Sometimes we harm ourselves more by trying to get rid of the sadness when you really just have to feel it and get through it.” 

What This Means For You

A big part of getting through these tough feelings can look like getting help. There are many online resources available to help you find counselors, therapists, and psychiatrists that are accepting new clients and scheduling visits through telehealth and other virtual platforms. “Now more than ever is a time to access therapy,” says Chhabra.

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