The stress of living through the COVID-19 pandemic and the far-reaching economic impacts it has caused has negatively af-fected people’s health and created new barriers for people already suffering from mental illness and substance abuse disorders, researchers say.
The pandemic has played havoc with people’s sense of safety, balance and well-being, impacting about 40% of adults nation-wide with anxiety or depressive disorders – a fourfold increase from pre-pandemic levels and challenging an already burdened system, according to Kaiser Family Foundation research.
A KFF Health Tracking Poll from July 2020 also found that many adults reported specific negative impacts on their mental health and well-being, including difficulty sleeping (36%) or eating (32%), increases in alcohol consumption or substance use (12%), and worsening chronic conditions (12%), due to worry and stress over the coronavirus.
“COMCARE has been seeing an influx of new people seeking mental health services, especially those needing mental health services for the first time,” said Rex Lear, MD, medical director for COMCARE of Sedgwick County. “Also, the people seeking services often have more significant mental health needs and are really struggling by the time they seek help.”
Physicians may be their first line of defense. Kansas residents have suffered through horrific losses of life and livelihoods over the past year. Nearly 307,000 people have caught COVID-19 in Kansas and about 5,000 people have died from it. Many others lost their jobs and financial stability. Families and friends have been isolated from one another. Children couldn’t go to school. Socializing in person was risky and often terrifying for many – all taking its toll on people’s mental health. By late October, some 43.6% of adults in Kansas reported anxiety and/or depressive disorders, slightly higher than national numbers.
“There has definitely been more anxiety and worries out there because of COVID,” said Wichita psychiatrist Dwight St. Clair, DO. “People are feeling their freedoms have been impacted, which for some is quite depressing. It provokes anxiety, wondering about the future.”
This has especially hit young women and Black and Hispanic adults hard.
KFF reports that nearly seven in 10 young women ages 18-29 say COVID-19 has negatively impacted their mental health. Most worry about getting sick, or that a family member might get sick. Nearly half of Black and Hispanic adults are more likely to report symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, while essential workers report experiencing more anxiety or depressive dis-orders, increased substance use and recent suicidal thoughts than other workers.
In addition, a KFF/Washington Post report out this month underscored that a majority of frontline health care workers say the pandemic has taken a toll on their mental health, including about three in 10 who are receiving or want to receive mental health services.
“Both those newly experiencing mental health or substance abuse disorders and those already diagnosed before the pandemic may require mental health and substance use services but could face additional barriers because of the pandemic,” KFF re-searchers said.
Researchers found that many are not getting the help they need when symptoms arise, making it more important than ever for physicians to keep an eye out for signs a patient may be struggling. Adults who didn’t get care for their mental health issues re-ported they couldn’t find a provider, couldn’t afford care, or were unable to take off work to seek treatment.
Lear said it is important for physicians to differentiate between patients who are “okay” but have feelings during a pandemic that would be considered “normal,” such as feeling stressed, not wanting to reach out to family or friends much, and mild feelings of depression or anxiety – as opposed to patients who probably need to reach out for mental health help.
“For example, patients who are struggling more often than not – who are spending more time feeling down than okay, who have friends or family say they are concerned about them, who are missing work or school, who are trying hard but still feel real-ly down for more than a few weeks – should probably reach out for help,” Lear said. “Also, it is important to not miss a patient who may be having suicidal ideation but not saying anything about it.”