One of the many unfortunate offshoots of the pandemic has been the mental health crisis it unleashed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that self-reported symptoms of depression and anxiety more than tripled among U.S. adults in the early months of the pandemic, an increase that according to one study was more dramatic than that resulting from other large-scale traumatic events, such as Hurricane Ida and the Ebola outbreak.
“Typically, we would expect depression to peak following the traumatic event and then lower over time,” Dr. Sandro Galea, a senior author of the study and Dean of Boston University’s School of Public Health, told Medical News Today. “Instead, we found that 12 months into the pandemic, levels of depression remained high.”
The swift rise of depression among Americans raises concern for public health experts, who say its prevalence exacerbates the other pandemic: mental illness. According to the CDC, “The spread of disease and increase in deaths during large outbreaks of transmissible diseases is often associated with fear and grief.” The insurmountable loss due to COVID-19, along with high rates of unemployment, social isolation, and racial injustice, have contributed to anxiety and depression compounding among American adults. Many individuals continue to fear leaving their homes due to the rise of various variants, leading to further isolation and despair.
Studies show that loneliness is a leading cause of depression, while self-isolation can give rise to suicidal ideation. Unfortunately, the elderly are at increased risk for loneliness and social isolation as a result of living alone, losing loved ones, suffering from a chronic illness, and more. Since the pandemic has disproportionately affected the elderly, this issue has only put their overall health at greater risk.
“There is robust evidence that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase the risk for premature mortality, and the magnitude of the risk exceeds that of many leading health indicators, “ Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, told PSYCOM.
A 2021 study from Psychiatry Research, titled ”’The dual pandemic’ of suicide and COVID-19: A biopsychosocial narrative of risks and prevention,” recommended harnessing technology to help people stay connected and access mental healthcare. For example, The Allure Group, a network of six New York City-based nursing homes, installed Samsung tablets at each of the 1,400 bedsides in its facilities before the outbreak even began. Allure’s “PadInMotion” technology not only serves its residents as a device for entertainment and relaxation but emerged as a crucial communication link to loved ones unable to access facilities because of governmental lockdowns in the early months of the pandemic.
Today, people can access mental healthcare, such as therapy, from similar devices, whether it’s a tablet, phone, or computer. While remote therapy existed prior to the pandemic, it hadn’t gained traction due to privacy concerns. In March 2020, US Department of Health and Human Services waived potential HIPAA penalties for good-faith use of telehealth. The growing popularity of apps like TalkSpace and BetterHelp make mental healthcare more accessible—you don’t need insurance to meet with a licensed counselor and it’s generally affordable. They also circumvent other limitations to receiving mental healthcare, such as transportation barriers and stigma associated with visiting a mental healthcare facility.
While the percentage of adults receiving mental health treatments increased overall in 2020, it decreased among individuals 65 and older. Experts like Dr. Jodi Frey, professor at The University of Maryland’s School of Social Work, believe intervention measures are more important to learn and implement now more than ever. “It was critical before COVID, and now it’s a crisis,” Dr. Frey told Delmarva Now. For the elderly who have few social connections, a doctor’s visit or home health care nurse may be one of the few consistent in-person interactions they have. Consequently, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Technology advises clinicians to occasionally assess potential at-risk patients and connect them with social care or community programs.
For individuals experiencing anxiety, depression, or suicidal ideation, you can connect with a doctor who can assess your risk for loneliness and social isolation. Active measures you can take to work towards mental health recovery include: staying connected to loved ones, utilizing teletherapy, limiting your use of social media, being kinder to yourself, exercising, and eating healthily.
If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1(800)273–8255 or visit their website at https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org for 24/7, free and confidential support.
Joel Landau, is founder and chairman of The Allure Group, a network of six New York City-based nursing homes.