The COVID-19 Pandemic has drastically altered life for nearly everyone on the planet, not just those who have suffered from the virus directly. From people losing their jobs to those now working from home, few have been entirely unscathed. The epidemic has dramatically impacted nearly every field of the sciences in one form or another. Whether it’s postponed important research or forced education online, science itself has felt the sting.
This includes the fields of psychology and therapy. Tragically, reports of suicide and depression have skyrocketed in the US during the crisis. Yet, most therapists cannot meet with their clients in-person. Thankfully, modern technology has still made treatment possible, albeit in a different form.
How Does COVID-19 Affect Mental Health: The Ill
How does COVID-19 affect mental health? We will examine the two aspects of this question: both how the virus itself can impact mental health, and how the epidemic at large can affect mental health.
Although most of the symptoms for COVID-19 manifest physically, a couple of mental health-related symptoms exist. These include confusion and an inability to stay awake. To be more specific, these are neurological symptoms. For some patients, these symptoms appear before any others. An article from Knowable Magazine writes:
In an April 15 letter to the New England Journal of Medicine, doctors in Strasbourg, France, reported an even higher prevalence of neurological symptoms in a group of patients there: 84 percent experienced symptoms that included “prominent agitation and confusion” and alterations to reflexes and muscle contractions that suggested neurological problems in the brain.
The coupling with the loss of taste and/or smell further indicates some sort of neurological effect.
Getting diagnosed with SARS-CoV-2 comes with its own mental health challenges. Despite relatively low mortality rates, getting diagnosed with a disease associated with a worldwide epidemic can be traumatizing. One might fear the possibility of death, or worry about who else has been exposed. Even those who recovery may experience survivor’s guilt.
How Does COVID-19 Affect Mental Health: The General Public
COVID-19 itself affects mental health one way, but the crisis as a whole also affects mental health. Increased isolation, job loss, financial strain, worsening of health problems, changes in sleeping and eating patterns, general fear – all of these can lead to an overwhelming sense of aimlessness and purposelessness. What could we expect if people lose their jobs, stay inside at home all day, interact with few people, and have little to no accountability? The significance of the loss of external constraints is inestimable. If one anticipated this experience to be a season of using all this “free time” for personal growth and accomplishing goals, then the struggle to take advantage often brings disillusionment. People did not know what to expect of themselves during a worldwide pandemic.
According to the KFF:
- In July, 53%of adults in the United States reported that their mental health has been negatively impacted due to worry and stress over the coronavirus, as opposed to 32% reported in March.
- Reports of negative impact on mental health and wellbeing include: difficulty sleeping (36%) or eating (32%), increases in alcohol consumption or substance use (12%), and worsening chronic conditions (12%) due to worry and stress.
- In March, “significantly higher shares of people who were sheltering in place (47%) reported negative mental health effects resulting from worry or stress related to coronavirus than among those not sheltering-in-place (37%).”
- Between the initial lockdown in March to the middle of May, alcohol sales in the US skyrocketed by 243%.
- “Data from recent KFF Tracking Polls found that a higher share of households that lost income or employment reported negative mental health impacts from worry or stress over the coronavirus than households that have not lost income or employment: 58% vs. 50%, respectively, in the poll conducted in mid-July.”
However, even concrete statistics like these cannot paint the full picture. In all likelihood, more comprehensive research on how COVID-19’s has affected mental health will not be possible until after the pandemic ends (yes, it will end!).
What Is It Like to Be a Therapist During COVID-19?
The pandemic has been particularly rough on health care workers. To cite the KFF:
The KFF Tracking Poll conducted in mid-April found that 64% of households with a health care worker said worry and stress over the coronavirus caused them to experience at least one adverse effect, such as difficulty sleeping or eating, increases in alcohol consumption or substance use, and worsening chronic conditions, on their mental health and wellbeing, compared to 56% of the total population.
Although statistics like these do not include most therapists (especially those with private practices), the pandemic has changed their work nevertheless. After all, the therapeutic relationship, however professional, is still a deeply personal one. As such, it is best developed in person as opposed to online or over the phone. Now, if someone has been going to the same therapist for a long time, then having a session over a Zoom call might not feel very different. Unfortunately, though, new clients may struggle. For example, it may take a little more work and a couple more sessions before someone can recognize whether or not that particular therapist is right for them. But if the therapeutic requires administering some sort of formal psychological evaluation, that really can only be done in person.
Woefully, this all could not have come at a worse time since it is times like these when people need the help of psychologists and therapists the most. Therapists are called upon to address COVID-specific difficulties, like anxiety, feeling aimless, depression, social isolation, etc. Yet, none of this means that meaningful work cannot be done. According to one therapist:
Some of my patients were reluctant to try telehealth during coronavirus. I said, ‘Let’s just try it out for five minutes. If you hate it, fine, but let’s just try it.’ [For the most part], they’ve been okay with it. For a couple of patients who were reluctant, we just scheduled short sessions at first until they were comfortable. We also talk about privacy — I send a secure link and have them test it… We can set goals on it in real-time, and write down strategies. Overall, clients seem to be taking to the transition to virtual sessions quite well.
Fortunately, like any challenge we face both as individuals and as a species, the challenge itself doesn’t have to mean the complete end of something, but rather the opportunity for change.
Therapy Resources During COVID-19
While the pandemic has forced numerous challenges upon us, it has also provided us with opportunities. After all, although all the statistics above paint a terribly bleak picture, they all also say one thing: we’re not alone. Even though we may be isolated, we are not alone. It’s important to mourn the horrific loss of life, to grieve the loss of other valuable things, but also to appreciate the good things. For example, education as we know it will never be the same. Businesses are rethinking strategies. People are using the time at home to create opportunities for themselves.
So, with that in mind, if you’re looking for resources on therapy and/or psychology during COVID-19, consider these:
- Better Help – an affordable, online therapy tool.
- Talkspace – another online therapy tool.
- Mental health tips from WHO
- Mental health tips from the CDC
- Other helpful information from NAMI
If you’ve used this time at home to accomplish personal goals, that’s worth commending. But if it has been hard on you, feel free not to be hard on yourself as well. Everyone responds to circumstances like these differently. You can both be thankful for the good, productive days, and even appreciative of the more lethargic days. But of all the pandemics throughout human history, none of them lasted forever. This one won’t either. We’ve made it through all of them. You can too.
Master of Divinity| Westminster Theological Seminary
Bachelor’s of Social Work, Bachelor of Science, Bible | Cairn University