Trigger Warning: This article includes discussion of mental illness and suicide.
In the midst of an unprecedented pandemic, an economic depression and an election year, in addition to winter coming soon, it is extremely important to be aware of the United States’ mental health crisis.
The topic of mental health is still very taboo in the United States, possibly due to our capitalist culture that encourages people to maintain an image of someone who is productive, balanced, level-headed, and successful. However, the truth is that many people struggle with everyday responsibilities and interactions. According to federal statistics, one in five adults have a mental illness. The Kaiser Family Foundation reported that the number of American deaths due to substance abuse or suicide have been increasing yearly. In 2017-2018, 17 million adults and 3 million adolescents reported being depressed and 10 million adults with mental illness had serious thoughts of suicide. Despite this, less than half of those who have a mental illness receive treatment, as the high cost of healthcare is a huge barrier. Adding in the social, economic, political, and emotional challenges of 2020 has only worsened the mental health of many individuals.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, isolation, fear, unemployment, illness and death have become factors in many American lives. In a Kaiser Family Foundation poll published in August, 53% of adults in the United States reported that worry and stress over coronavirus has negatively impacted their mental health. Many reported symptoms of anxiety and depression. 34% of Gen Z adults and 19% of millennials stated that their mental health is worse now than it was this time last year, according to a report published this month by the American Psychological Association. The CDC has also acknowledged the worsening mental health crisis due to COVID-19, citing younger adults, racial minorities, essential workers, and unpaid adult caregivers as those who experience disproportionately worse mental health outcomes.
Many individuals rely on their daily routines and interactions with other human beings as a consistent, structured support in their lives. Socialization can be a distraction from internal mental struggles and a motivator to simply get out of bed in the morning. When work, school and social lives are put on hold completely or heavily compromised, many people simply do not know what to do or how to cope. Adapting to an entirely different routine and lifestyle of online, masked, and/or distanced interactions suddenly is not easy. Americans are left feeling lonely, displaced, unmotivated, frustrated, and trapped. Not to mention the fear of themselves or a loved one becoming seriously ill.
College students found themselves studying remotely online for the remainder of the spring 2020 semester. Some students are in the same situation this fall semester, while others are enrolled in hybrid classes, which consist of a combination of online and in-person instruction. Either way, online schooling is arguably far more difficult than traditional classroom instruction.
Studying online inevitably increases the amount of time one is sitting in front of a computer and therefore reduces necessary physical activity. Many students struggle with finding a distraction-free environment to work in their place of living. Shared living spaces are not the same as library study rooms. Students studying from their family home become overwhelmed with schoolwork and other household responsibilities that they would not have if they were otherwise living on-campus, such as supervising a younger sibling. BBC reported that video calls can be extremely tiring. On video calls, it is much more difficult for the human brain to process non-verbal cues including facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. It is harder for the conversation to feel natural. Furthermore, being on camera causes one to be more conscious of how he or she appears to others.
The American Psychological Association reported that 87% of Gen Z adults in college said that education is a significant source of stress in their lives. Additionally, 67% of Gen Z adults in college said that the pandemic makes planning for their future feel impossible. Combine these challenges with the fact that they cannot play sports normally, party, or travel, and you will understand why many college students are unhappy and struggling.
Those working remotely face similar challenges to students, though many Americans are facing the challenges of not working at all. According to a Columbia University study published this month, an additional 8 million Americans began living in poverty since May. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services considers any family of four earning $26,200 a year or less as living below the poverty line. Currently, 55 million Americans live in poverty.
Studies have shown that individuals who live in poverty, especially early in life or for an extended period of time, are more at risk for adverse health outcomes. Poverty in adulthood has been linked to depression, anxiety, psychological distress, and suicide. The Washington Post reported on a study done of the Great Recession that found with every percentage point increase in the unemployment rate, the suicide rate increased by approximately 1.6%. There is no question that the worsening mental health crisis in 2020 is linked to the economic recession.
Annually, the onset of fall and winter affects the mental and emotional state of many humans, but 2020 will be particularly challenging. USA Today reported that 5% of Americans have seasonal affective disorder – a type of depression caused by less sunlight and colder temperatures. The symptoms include sadness, loss of interest in activities, loss of energy, and changes in sleep and eating habits. Over the summer, people were able to safely gather outdoors with a lesser risk of spreading covid-19. As the case numbers increase nationally and people flock indoors to avoid the cold, there will be fewer activities and socialization opportunities to serve as necessary coping mechanisms for those with seasonal affective disorder.
Considering all of these factors, it is easy to understand why so many Americans are struggling mentally. We have all heard it before – these are unprecedented times. The United States’ future is uncertain in terms of how long the pandemic and the days of masks, social distancing, and video calls will continue. The answer to that question heavily relies on the result of the upcoming election.
When it comes to breaking down the stigma America has surrounding mental health, the first step is to talk about it. Acknowledge that a mental health crisis exists and educate yourself further on what exactly is happening and how common mental illness actually is. And to those who are struggling under our current circumstances – please know that you are not alone. There is a crisis. Mental health is a widespread issue. 2020 has affected so many people negatively. Your struggles are valid.
One final statistic for struggling college students to remember is from the American Psychological Association: “Gen Z adults are the most likely to report experiencing common symptoms of depression, with 75% reporting that in the prior two weeks they felt so tired that they sat around and did nothing, 74% felt very restless, 73% found it hard to think properly or concentrate, 73% felt lonely, and 71% felt miserable or unhappy.” While all of these things are difficult to cope with, it is comforting to know that feelings are temporary and that the world will not be this way forever.
Finally, if you have not already, consider candidates’ healthcare plans, views on mental health, and strategies for handling the pandemic and recession when voting. There are Americans who need federal support more than ever right now.
Wellness Center Counseling Services: 607-871-2300
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
By Katie Alley