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COVID-19's Silent Mental Health Epidemic

If you browse social media or even step outside, you are sure to be reminded again and again that there is a still-unresolved coronavirus epidemic that has taken the world by storm. But what about the other shadow epidemic, the silent mental health crisis that has claimed its own casualties?

Exploring the mental health catastrophe at hand is not to detract from the physical, viral COVID-19 pandemic; the threat that it poses to human health is real. In enough cases to matter, COVID-19 infection is even fatal. The cause for caution that has driven the COVID-19 public health response is clear.  

However, have we as a nation – and the public health infrastructure in particular – underestimated the mental health toll that the shutdowns and social distancing regulations have exacted on our psyches?

Lockdowns may be necessary in the absence of less disruptive ways to contain the spread of the virus, and our reliance on them is understandable, but they are certainly a double-edged sword.

In many jurisdictions, COVID-19 shutdowns have meant no more music festivals, no more gym workouts or yoga, no more after-work watering holes, for anyone. For many people, social recreational activities like these are more than hobbies – they define who they are and how they exist in the world. Can you strip people of their essential identities as they perceive them and expect anything other than disastrous public health consequences?

What about the comedian nightclub performer who can’t make people laugh anymore? What about the daughter or son who can’t visit a beloved parent in a nursing home? What about the struggling teenager who finds his or her only solace on the sports field, but who can’t play anymore?

Schools remain shut down in many areas; what about children’s social development, which hinges critically on the skills they learn from experiences with their peers?

The natural initial response might be: “Yes, but allowing a person to do their job or favorite activity, or even visit elderly parents, isn’t worth the additional deaths that would result from COVID-19 transmission!”

That moral judgment might or might not be valid. Whether the shutdowns were justified or not, people are suffering now and will suffer into the future because of them. 

The evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic, including the public health response itself, precipitated a mental health breakdown among the public is quite clear. 14% of young adult respondents in a UK study conducted between March and May (with March marking the beginning of lockdowns) reported wanting to end their lives, which indicated a 6% increase in just a two-month period. Various public health groups like the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) have warned of the spike in suicide rates across the world.

Similar statistics unanimously indicate that both the rates and severity of depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses have dramatically increased since the pandemic began.

The physiological mechanisms by which social isolation negatively affects health are complex, but the psycho-social issue at play is clearer: humans are social creatures. We are hardwired for connectivity within the community. Our hominid ancestors evolved working together in communal partnerships – our deepest survival instincts are honed to seek and maintain social relationships. We must remain connected with one another; our psychological survivability depends on it.

If you or a loved one have experienced the mental health toll of the 2020 lockdowns, there is hope. Consider one or more of the following strategies to restore and maintain good mental health:

  • Regular exercise (proven to improve mental health).
  • Eat a whole-foods based diet with an emphasis on fruits, vegetables, and lean meats (also shown to alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression).