The Pandemic Raised Mental Health Awareness. Will It Last?

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This story is part of a series where we look at the ways COVID-19 has changed our lives and how it will continue to affect public health in 2022.

Key Takeaways

  • There's been an uptick in mental health concerns since the pandemic began.
  • Because of this, mental health awareness has taken hold over the past year.
  • Experts argue that this increased awareness will only lead to more positive changes down the road.

If this pandemic has had a silver lining, it’s the fact that many more people are now aware of the importance of mental health. Unfortunately, this is in part due to the pandemic's harrowing effect on people’s mental wellbeing.

Just last month, the U.S. Surgeon General declared that young people were facing a mental health crisis. Many therapists have described the uptick in reported mental health concerns across the country as a “second pandemic."

This increased awareness has pushed institutions—from schools to the workplace—to start taking the problem seriously by facilitating conversations around the topic.

But is this willingness to accept mental health conditions here to stay? Verywell asked experts to weigh in. Many are hopeful that this newfound awareness will guide us in a positive direction for the future.

How COVID-19 Affected Mental Health

“COVID-19 has shown people that mental health is real, mental health can be severe, mental health can be difficult to treat, and mental health resources may be difficult to access,” Candice Tate, MD, MBA, medical director at Magellan Healthcare, told Verywell.

This is especially true because the pandemic was unexpected, and the world did not have enough time to prepare for these abrupt changes, Tate said.

National surveys have shown that more than 28% of adults in the U.S. reported having anxiety in the last year and more than 22% reported symptoms of depression. The locations hit hardest by the pandemic also saw the biggest toll on mental health.

This is especially true for people directly working on the frontlines like healthcare workers. One study found that in the U.S., more than 80% of medical staff survey responders had depression symptoms and almost 25% noted they had been thinking about suicide or self-harm. Nearly 50% of medical staff surveyed also said that the pandemic had somewhat or significantly reduced their chances of continuing their work in this field.

The number of people hospitalized for eating disorders—such as anorexia and bulimia—doubled in 2020. Substance addiction and abuse, as well as overdoses, have also skyrocketed.

Children’s mental health, specifically, has taken a hit as well. The CDC has shown that, for children, there was an uptick in mental health-related emergency department visits. For girls between the age of 12 and 17, there was a staggering 50% increase in attempted suicides since the pandemic began.

The reasons behind worsening mental health are clear. Many are experiencing grief after losing a loved one to the virus. Others are dealing with the anxiety of caring for those that are sick.

Throughout the pandemic, people have faced unemployment, navigated online schooling, and struggled with social isolation. These negative impacts of the pandemic, such as job loss, economic instability, housing, and food insecurity, have also, specifically, disproportionately hit minority communities.

Our Understanding of Mental Health Has Changed

Mental health has become somewhat of a buzzword over the past two years. But it isn't all just talk.

More people are finding the professional help they need. Or at the very least, receiving support from their community.

A YouGov poll suggests that there’s been a 13% increase in the number of American young adults (18 to 24-year-olds) who have sought counseling during the pandemic.

Switching to telehealth has made mental health resources easier to access and has removed some stigma-related barriers. There’s been such an increase in interest in therapy, that there is a shortage of counselors.

We’ve also started talking about taking mental health days at school and work, for example, with workplaces and institutions beginning to allow it.

Is Mental Health Awareness Here to Stay?

The real question, now, is whether this newfound awareness is just a blip or whether it's here to stay. Although experts in the field are still uncertain, they argue that this positive trend should only improve as more rules and structures are put into place.

Tate said she doesn't know whether this is a trend or whether it will be permanent. But, she added, the pandemic has been a defining period of time in history, and it will definitely inform the people who have survived it.

“I believe that the stress of it will stay with us for some time to come,” Tate said. “Many will continue to wear masks and pay attention during flu and cold seasons. I hope they will also continue to discuss stress, anxiety, and depression.”

Other experts are feeling more positive.

“I do think that we are at a turning point moment in our nation that will continue past the pandemic, especially because mental health and substance use challenges will continue to rise as we return to more normal routines,” Chuck Ingoglia, MSW, president and CEO of the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, told Verywell.

The rise of digital mental health and substance use treatment makes accessing care easier. This will also have an impact on how people think about these illnesses, according to Ingoglia.

Jillian Lampert, PhD, MPH, chief strategy officer of Accanto Health, said she hopes that awareness of mental health as an important part of health will stay at the forefront of our minds and approaches to health.

“Stigma gets broken down when people shine a light on a topic and share experiences with each other,” Lampert told Verywell. “We can continue that, in big, population-based ways, and in smaller, individual relationship level ways.”

The impact of COVID-19 and all that it did to change our experience of safety, connection, health, and wellbeing will have a long-lasting impact on mental health, Lampert added.

What This Means For You

If you or someone you know is struggling with depression and isn't sure where to get help, call SAMHSA’s National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357). It's confidential, free, and runs 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year. It's available in English and Spanish. If you call this helpline, they can give you referrals to local treatment centers, support groups, and other organizations.

What Can We Do to Make This Trend Stick?

Experts believe there are some steps we can take to keep mental health support from dissipating once the pandemic fades out of view.

Keep the Conversation Going

First, the conversation itself about mental health must continue.

“Continue the conversation. The cover is off the topic—keep light on it,” Lampert said. “We need to keep talking about mental health, sharing vulnerability, empathy, and understanding.”

Given that we have reached a new level in normalizing mental health struggles as a normal part of being human—that evolution will continue if we keep talking about it, Lampert argues.

“While we may not be able to completely understand what someone else is going through or why and how it impacts them, we certainly can all support the concept that when someone needs health care and support for their mental health and well-being," Lampert said. "It is just as important as their physical health.”

Mental health campaigns raising awareness will continue to be important.

“I would like to see more non-pharmacological campaigns for mental health awareness and mental health screening,” Tate said. “I would also like to see local advertisements for mental health centers to demonstrate how dialogue allows people to disclose their issues and experience and helps to decrease stigma.”

Work to Remove Barriers to Access

While access to care has increased during the pandemic, barriers remain for many people in the U.S.

“We must eliminate barriers to access that prevent so many Americans from seeking care, especially Black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American and LGBTQ+ individuals—nearly half of whom say they have personally experienced increased mental health challenges over the past 12 months,” Ingoglia said.

But too few of them have actually received treatment according to a poll by the National Council for Mental Wellbeing.

“Too often they don’t know where to turn for help,” Ingoglia said. “Even if they do know where to turn, the cost of treatment prevents many Black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American and LGBTQ+ individuals from seeking help.”

Continue to Research Mental Health

“In my opinion, mental health awareness should be anchored in data,” Tate said. “It is important to study all demographic groups to understand how mental health is affecting different types of people. The data also humanizes everyone and can break down stereotypes about who suffers.”

According to Tate, new data will allow us to continue to educate society about mental health symptoms and how to access mental health treatment.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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