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Mental Health Effects Expected to Linger When COVID-19 Subsides

Merritt Hawkins Team | June 03, 2021

Mental Health Effects Expected to Linger When COVID-19 Subsides

Mental Health Effects Expected to Linger When COVID-19 Subsides

Months of social isolation. Loved ones lost. Struggles with distance learning. Financial hardships. The list of reasons behind the rising number of people experiencing mental health issues during the COVID-19 pandemic could go on and on. Even as cases of the virus continue to dwindle, experts are concerned that the mental health effects may also go on and on, according to an NBC News report on May 19.

"I'm very concerned about the effects being long-term," said Luana Marques, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. In her interview with NBC News, she cited the ongoing, global reach of this pandemic as particularly problematic, with “the levels of depression and anxiety high since last March, that tells me that we're going to see an increasing prevalence of mental health [problems] globally.”

Early research on mental health effects from COVID-19:

A September 2020 study published in JAMA Network Open reported an increase in depression symptoms, anxiety symptoms and post-traumatic stress symptoms in America’s general population in the early part of the pandemic. In fact, depression rates more than tripled from about 8.5 percent before the pandemic was declared to 27.8 percent during it.

The research team also found that people with lower income, less than $5,000 in savings, and having exposure to more COVID-19 stressors were associated with greater risk of depression symptoms.

Another survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, conducted from August 2020 to February of 2021, found that the percentage of adults with recent symptoms of an anxiety or a depressive disorder increased from 36.4 percent to 41.5 percent. The percentage of those reporting an unmet mental health care need also increased from 9.2 percent to 11.7 percent. Increases were largest among young adults, aged 18–29 years, and those with less than a high school education.

What about the long-term mental health effects?

In the NBC News report, Michael Zvolensky, PhD, distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Houston, stressed that there will definitely be long-term mental health effects from the pandemic, especially for segments of the population that were hardest hit. He also cautioned that the longer these issues are unaddressed, the more likely they'll have long-lasting effects.


Reviewing the history of traumatic events shows that mental health consequences can last for years.


Fifteen years after the 9/11 attacks in New York City, 14 percent of local residents and rescue workers were still experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, according to a study of 36,897 people in the World Trade Center Health Registry. The results were published in Environmental Health in 2019.


The authors concluded that comprehensive physical and mental health care are essential for survivors of complex environmental disasters, and called it a “critical” need to connect affected persons to needed resources.


Increasing pressure from workforce shortages

In a recent blog on telepsychiatry and behavioral health jobs, Mike Belkin, divisional vice president for Merritt Hawkins, noted that demand for both child and adult psychiatrists has definitely been increasing during the COVID pandemic, “which reflects the reports of more behavioral health issues during this crisis.”


Although the extent and duration of these mental health effects after the pandemic are difficult to predict, the need for mental health professionals is expected to remain strong—especially considering ongoing workforce shortages.


Belkin commented that with more than 60 percent of practicing psychiatrists over the age of 55, the increasing demand for services and limited supply issues are creating the “perfect storm” to make access to mental health services a major concern.

Yet, there are still many unknowns in the months and years ahead, and existing data can only help so much.

There have been studies of the tail effect of natural calamities or disease outbreaks, but those occurrences are normally limited by geography. And terrorist attacks and other mass tragedies tend to be short-term, acute episodes.


Thus, mental health experts are starting to realize that this unprecedented COVID pandemic may have unprecedented long-term consequences—based on its global reach, extended duration and extraordinary amount of secondary stressors resulting from lockdowns and other changes affecting “normal life.”


COVID-19, Telepsychiatry and the Future of Behavioral Health Jobs

Burnout and Beyond: Mental Health Awareness for Clinicians


Merritt Hawkins, a company of AMN Healthcare, specializes in placing physicians and advanced practitioners in career opportunities across the United States.

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