‘It’s taken a physical but also emotional toll’: Even once pandemic clouds pass, mental health challenges may linger

MADISON, Wis. – The pandemic’s clouds are clearing, but for some, the storm will continue.

The COVID-19 pandemic impacted nearly everyone, bringing about social isolation, anxiety about the virus, and for some, grief from the loss of loved ones. Boston College researchers found that reports of depression and anxiety were six times higher for Americans in 2020 compared to the previous year. A recent research letter in JAMA indicated that post-traumatic stress disorder was present in nearly a third of acute COVID survivors.

“There have been significant losses and challenges,” said Shilagh Mirgain, a distinguished psychologist with UW Health. “Stress after stress after stress has taken a toll.”

Mirgain pointed to a survey showing more than half of Americans said their mental health had been adversely affected by the pandemic.

“It’s taken a physical but also emotional toll,” she said. “It isn’t a light switch where those problems go away.”

Dark clouds can still hang over people’s heads, or even roll through as things return to normal.

“Often we’re nearing the end of a crisis, on the other side, when those mental health symptoms can emerge,” Mirgain said.

Mirgain said the groups most impacted included those with existing mental health disorders, essential workers, communities of color, parents of young children and young people themselves.

Dr. Roopa Shah, a family medicine specialist with SSM Health, has seen more of a demand for mental health services, especially from adolescents and young adults. She said the demand is not slowing down yet.

“They really kind of bore the brunt of this, especially in terms of social isolation they’ve endured during the pandemic,” Shah said.  “We’re going to see the effects of this reverberate through communities and society for a long time to come.”

The effects can stick with individuals, too, many who have upped their substance use, started over-eating or developed sleep problems.

“First, know you’re not alone,” Shah said, recommending self-care in whatever way makes sense for the individual. “From taking time for a walk, going outside and getting exercise, reading, yoga, maybe getting a massage. Maybe things you don’t normally do. Taking better care of yourself and not having any guilt about it.”

She suggested reaching out to a primary care physician to determine if professional help would be beneficial, though it can be hard to secure an appointment in the near future.

But with increased telehealth options, less stigma talking about mental health partly because of the pandemic, and the world opening up again, Shah and Mirgain are looking at the silver lining.

“I do believe we’ll come out of this more resilient,” Shah said.

“We can have this opportunity to re-envision what we want to have going forward for our life. Who do we want to be? What kind of health do we want to cultivate? What kinds of relationships do we want to have? What kinds of activities do we really enjoy?” Mirgain said. “I think it can be a springboard to a new and better chapter in our lives, because we’ll really appreciate it knowing how much we lost out on or how much we missed last year.”