Mental health and the economy

March 19, 2021 2:04 PM

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Person standing and looking out towards a lake at sunset. Photo courtesy of Lukas Rychvalsky on Pexels.

Person standing and looking out towards a lake at sunset. Photo courtesy of Lukas Rychvalsky on Pexels.

We often imagine the fall of mankind as a result of alien invasion, massive climate change, or international nuclear war. So, it may be surprising that man’s most recent catastrophe stems from a microscopic parasite — something invisible to the naked eye! There is no doubt that the coronavirus has completely upended our daily lives, and its health impacts on the world population have been detrimental. Globally, there have been over 100 million cases and nearly 2.5 million deaths. Although the majority of infected individuals recover (the mortality rate in the United States is only 1.8%, according to data from Johns Hopkins University), there are persisting problems for those infected. The appearance of a Kawasaki-like anti-inflammatory disease among children and the growing number of “long-haulers” facing chronic challenges are some of the concerning and disheartening issues that remain unresolved.

In addition to its effect on public health, medicine, and the healthcare field, the virus has also greatly impacted the economy and the workforce. Don Seiffert, Managing Editor of the Boston Business Journal, observed how “tech and biotech companies thrived, and most offices learned they were able to quickly pivot to remote working, the pandemic greatly affected businesses that require face-to-face interaction.” These include restaurants, construction, and many non-essential retail stores. 

While there are numerous factors that have increased financial pressure on Americans, Seiffert elaborated how “unemployment has clearly been the condition that is hurting the most people and causing the most stress.” At the beginning of the pandemic, unemployment in the United States soared to levels not seen since the Great Depression, which has undoubtedly led to financial instability for millions of Americans. Nearly a year later, many still face the difficult financial situation of having to decide whether to pay for their rent, for their medications, or for their groceries. The latest press release from the government of Massachusetts reports that around 7.4% of Massachusetts citizens, nearly three hundred thousand individuals, are still unemployed. This reality, combined with one of the most controversial political elections in United States history and a growing awareness of recent social injustices, has contributed to the stressors many Americans have suffered through.

As a result of these turbulent times, there has been a frightening surge in mental health-related illnesses. “There is evidence that individuals with OCD or heightened anxiety sensitivity (for example panic disorder or illness anxiety disorder) are struggling at increased rates during pandemic times,” says Danielle Moskow, a clinical extern at McLean Hospital and Psychology Doctoral student at Boston University, “yet many individuals are experiencing heightened anxiety and depression.” In late June of 2020, studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed that forty percent of surveyed US adults were struggling with mental health or substance abuse.

Aside from the political, social, and financial struggles, social distancing restrictions have also exacerbated the symptoms of mental health disorders. Moskow explains that, while biological factors like “not getting enough sleep, eating too much or too little, [or] not exercising…can put us at heightened risk for experiencing negative emotions, and suffering as a result,” many are unable to go outside for walks, talk to friends in-person, or indulge in the typical coping strategies for handling setbacks. Therefore, the demand for clinical care has increased, and a greater number of patients struggling with anxiety, depression, and loneliness have sought help. 

Despite these challenges, there is hope. According to The New York Times, coronavirus cases have been on a promising decline since mid-January. Now, with multiple vaccine options available, the number of cases and deaths are expected to dwindle. “If vaccines are widespread by the summer, as many believe,” Seiffert asserts, “the restrictions should theoretically be unnecessary by fall.” Thus, scientists are optimistic that Americans will soon be able to feel some sense of normalcy.

However, there continue to be numerous hurdles in getting enough people vaccinated to reach herd immunity — state and local governments continue to report vaccine shortages and many feel doubtful about the validity of the vaccines—and even after public health is restored, many will likely continue to remain wary about their personal health. In a recent interview on CNN, Dr. Fauci speculated that it is possible Americans may need to continue wearing masks into 2022 to protect themselves against the virus.

Moskow articulates, “it is possible that hope will arise as people are able to start doing more,” but also says, “it is easy to not want to feel hopeful… like we're almost waiting for the other shoe to drop.” Moreover, just as adapting to the “new normal” of social distancing induced anxiety and depression, Moskow concludes, “it may take some time for many people to really go back to their baseline level of emotions.”

In the meantime, Moskow encourages all to reduce vulnerability factors. These factors include the physical, economic, social, and political variables that may trigger the development of psychological illnesses or affect one’s ability to resist, handle, and recover from mental health struggles. By practicing these self-care techniques (i.e., maintaining a good sleep schedule, eating well, exercising, starting a new hobby, or connecting with others, even if over Zoom) vulnerability factors can be kept at bay. “Keep busy to the best of your ability, while also allowing yourself downtime,” Moskow recommends. “These are difficult times, and we still need time to unwind, relax, and care for ourselves.”

If you are interested in mental health treatment, you can research options and apply for financial support using the To Write Love on Her Arms Find Help Tool

If you are in crisis, you can reach the Samaritan’s Hotline by phone call or text message at 877.870.4673 or chat online at the Suicide Prevention Lifeline website.

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