The psychological toll of living during a pandemic

Living in isolation can take its toll on a person. Just ask anyone who has been following the recommendations of science and government during the days of the coronavirus pandemic; both have suggested that people around the world stay at home — essentially under quarantine — depending on where you live for anywhere from a few to many months. 

The goal? To prevent the spread of COVID-19, the deadly respiratory illness that has killed more than 288,200 (as of press time on Tuesday, May 12) worldwide since first being discovered in Wuhan, China, in late 2019. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), community transmission of COVID-19 was first detected in the U.S. in February 2020, and by mid-March, all 50 states, the District of Columbia and four U.S. territories had reported cases of the virus. 

The enormous magnitude of the coronavirus pandemic has forced politicians like Governor Andrew Cuomo to take unprecedented steps; he shut down much of New York state — the epicenter of the outbreak in the U.S. — in mid-March, closing all schools and non-essential businesses. Cuomo ordered social distancing, at distances of at least 6 feet (per the CDC’s guidelines) and the wearing of face masks. Throughout the country other governors took similar measures. And while re-opening the economy has been a hot-button issue with a number of states opening too soon, according to some health experts, and others opening too slowly, according to some economists, the fact is people have been shuttered indoors for a long, long time.

That’s led to a spike in mental health issues, like depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse and even suicide, as a staggering 20.5 million Americans struggle to deal with being out of work. The U.S. economy saw unemployment rates skyrocket to 14.7% in April — the worst it’s been since the Great Depression. With no jobs, millions of people are struggling to put food on their tables and pay their bills. On top of that, they’re trying to keep themselves and their families healthy — realizing that if they fail to do so they could easily wind up dead. It’s an incredibly stressful and fear-ridden time, and the lack of social interaction among people who are used to consorting at their jobs, on the town and with their friends and family is only making it tougher.  

According to a tracking poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation between March 25 and March 30, 45% of adults said the pandemic has affected their mental health; 19% of whom said it’s had a “major impact.” 

And it gets worse.

According to data collected in the U.S. from 1997 to 2010 (including during the 2007–09 recession) by the nonprofit Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute in Texas, “each percentage point increase in the unemployment rate results in a 1.6% increase in the suicide rate.” 

The institute estimates that a recession resulting from the pandemic that is similar to the 2007–09 recession — when U.S. workers experienced a 5% spike in unemployment — would result in nearly 4,000 additional American suicides “because of unemployment alone.”

And unemployment isn’t the only COVID-19 issue. The legal profession is expecting a surge in divorces after couples stop quarantining, as the stress from being confined with one’s spouse for months on end while dealing with financial shortfalls is too much for some marriages to handle. The mental anguish of seeing one’s family fall apart is only going to add to the many burdens people are trying to cope with during this health crisis.

Then there are those on the frontlines — our health care workers, emergency personnel and others forced to face death daily. COVID-19 is impelling frontline workers to systematically confront what is at best a difficult situation, all while fearing for their own lives. The pressure is enormous and it must feel to many as if there’s no relief in sight. 

We sympathize with everyone suffering from mental distress at this time — please know that you are not alone. The good news is there are ways to decompress: talk to friends and family; seek therapy — even virtually; exercise; read or draw; play music or watch a movie; start a new hobby; and, of course, call a hotline for support if necessary. 

There are many. The New York State Office of Mental Health hotline is 1-844-863-9314. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) helpline is 800-950-6264. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800-273-8255. That’s just a start. 

There is a light at the end of the tunnel. The pandemic will  eventually pass and society will return to a new normal, necessary to keep everyone safe and healthy. In the meantime, keep doing your part and stay the course — self-isolate, social distance and follow what have been pretty fair and wise guidelines from the governor’s office and the CDC — because the reality is that the alternative is no more desirable.

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