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The Mental Health Crisis Already Existed. Pandemic Panic Just Made It Worse

Overwhelming surges in calls to crisis hotlines have sparked concerns over a looming mental health crisis that has long been already here.


The Washington Post ran a story last week headlined, “The coronavirus pandemic is pushing America into a mental health crisis.” It cited a Kaiser Family Foundation survey finding nearly half of Americans say the pandemic is harming their mental health.

The Post went on to point out that the federal hotline for those in emotional distress has seen calls jump 1,000 percent last month from the same month last year, and roughly 20,000 texted the hotline operated by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Other crisis hotlines across the country have reported an overwhelming surge in calls from Americans growing ever more anxious under the great uncertainty society’s response to coronavirus presents. Financial devastation and extreme isolation compounded by constantly moving goalposts for even a semblance of return to normalcy have created the perfect storm for a different epidemic not seen in the nation’s hospitals.

Well Being Trust, a national public health group, released another study this week projecting upwards of 75,000 additional people will succumb to suicide and substance abuse due to coronavirus anxiety and shutdowns. This total is nearly as many who have died from the virus so far.

President Donald Trump predicted this more than a month ago when he spoke of a desire to reopen the country in March.

“People get tremendous anxiety and depression, and you have suicides over things like this when you have terrible economies, Trump said.

The national suicide hotline is 1-800-273-8255. More resources are here.

Even after the Associated Press botched fact-check of the president’s comments, other outlets eventually caught on to the pandemic’s psychic consequences. “The Coming Mental-Health Crisis,” headlined an article in The Atlantic Thursday. “The coming coronavirus mental health crisis,” headlined another in Axios. “U.N. Warns of Global Mental Health Crisis Due to COVID-19 Pandemic,” reported The New York Times.

Yet this is only half the story, at least in the United States, which already faced a mental health crisis long preceding the pandemic. It’s only now just being more widely realized that the coronavirus crisis exacerbates an existing problem.

“We already had a mental health crisis prior to COVID,” says Allysen Efferson, a therapist in East Tennessee who writes for The Federalist. “COVID is a factor in what we’re seeing, but this existed prior to this coronavirus pandemic.”

Suicides skyrocketed 35 percent between 1999 and 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control. More than 48,000 people killed themselves in 2018, making suicide the 10th leading cause of death in the United States.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 American adults experience a mental illness every year, 1 in 25 experience a serious mental illness every year, and suicide is the second leading cause of death among those aged 10 to 34.

As a majority of Americans stay home on partial lockdown orders and 36 million remain out of work, the nation’s psyche is only continuing to deteriorate along with the economy. Efferson told The Federalist that getting people back to work is one way to lift the nation’s spirits and combat the problem, which can be done in a safe manner as the virus lingers.

“We know that in a job, people find purpose,” Efferson said. “There’s dignity in being able to provide for yourself and your family. Continuing to keep people in lockdown, for the vast majority of us, takes away our primary source of well-being, our job.”

Yet the continued climb in unemployment is all the more threatening. The April jobs report unveiled by the Department of Labor last week shows the U.S. reaching record levels of unemployment not seen since the Great Depression: nearly 15 percent.

According to a study on the Great Recession in 2007, every one percentage point increase in unemployment correlated with a 1.6 percent increase in the suicide rate. Another study from the British Medical Journal examining suicide amid the Great Recession in both Europe and American countries reported that by 2009, there was a 37 percent increase in unemployment with 5,000 more suicides above what was expected.

“The research is pretty clear. A really good way to improve mental health during a recession is to put people back to work,” Efferson said.

But in the absence of anything else to do, Americans are clinging to their favorite vices to cope, including substances and social media. Social media apps now consume approximately 25 percent of all mobile app usage among adults, according to Nielsen data reported by Axios. Efferson says that’s not healthy either, considering excessive screen use has been shown to cause greater anxiety and depression.

“Nobody’s living their best quarantine life,” Efferson assured, even though some Americans post manufactured images of picture-perfect lives under the pandemic.

Addiction to illicit substances have also re-emerged as a pre-pandemic crisis picking up again among an anxious public. Authorities across the country are reporting a spike in opioid overdoses and Americans are relying on other drugs and alcohol to get by as they sit locked in their homes, many without income and meaningful work.

“There’s no telling what being locked in the house for six weeks has done to you,” Efferson said, making clear that those struggling are not alone, and resources are available for struggling Americans.

There are online groups for substance abuse recovery. Find resources here, here and hereHere’s what to do if someone you know is suicidal.