COVID-19 and the risks for mental health and substance abuse

Illustration by Tonesha Yazzie

As society inches closer to a vaccine to combat COVID-19, certain issues still need to be addressed, including those that may outlast the negative effects of the disease. Among these problems are worsened mental health, the consequences of isolation and the economic recession’s high unemployment rates.

Junior Patrick O’Connell said oftentimes, he became lonely and depressed during self-isolation, which can limit people’s abilities to deal with their mental states.

“The problem is that people are cooped up,” O’Connell said. “We need to be free to make our own choices and deal with it on our own.”

According to a Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) poll from mid-July, 53% of adults in the United States were negatively affected by poor mental health due to stress and worry over COVID-19. The study also showed there was a 12% increase in alcohol abuse as the pandemic continued, along with a 12% rise in worsening chronic conditions. Additionally, the study documented that the struggle for mental health could be connected to a lack of social experiences. 

“These measures [social distancing and other safety precautions] may limit their interactions with caregivers and loved ones, which could lead to increased feelings of loneliness and anxiety, in addition to general feelings of fear and uncertainty due to the pandemic,” KFF stated. 

The Mental Health Association in New Jersey, reported some states started offering additional help to people dealing with mental health issues related to the pandemic. In New Jersey specifically, the state’s behavioral health information and referral service now provides free and confidential support. 

With self-quarantining and social distancing, another concern is that certain medicines may be inaccessible. If someone cannot get methadone or Suboxone — commonly used prescriptions for narcotics addictions — they are more likely to self-medicate withdrawals. For this reason, the American Medical Association urged governors to be flexible in evaluating patients and prescribing treatments using telemedicine, which generally allows people to receive care without further compromising mental health or substance abuse problems. 

Similarly, a recent NPR report stated a spike in deadly drug overdoses, which occurred around the U.S. during the pandemic, was evident in 60% of counties that contributed to data collection. 

According to KFF, deteriorating mental health was also associated with peoples’ overall fear of the virus. While this situation is mostly separate from an individual’s control, O’Connell said it can intensify any previously negative or harmful mentalities.

“Try to get out of your bubble and stop stressing about it, because bottom line, it’s out of our control,” O’Connell said. “All we can do is sit and wait.”

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) statement from July 1 claimed that knowing the facts about COVID-19 — and slowing the spread of rumors — can make the outbreak less stressful. By understanding the risk to oneself and others, people can form connections.

However, this experience can be more challenging for those with mental health conditions or substance abuse problems, who may be more vulnerable during the pandemic. 

“Taking care of your friends and your family can be a stress reliever, but it should be balanced with care for yourself,” the CDC reported. “During times of increased social distancing, people can still maintain social connections and care for their mental health. Phone calls or video chats can help you and your loved ones feel socially connected, less lonely or isolated.”

According to The Washington Post federal agencies and experts warn of a looming mental health crisis with depression, substance abuse and PTSD if the pandemic continues. Susan Borja, who leads the Dimensional Traumatic Stress Research Program at the National Institute of Mental Health, even shared concerns about “suffering that’s going to go untreated on such a large scale.” 

Following the mental health problems caused by isolation tactics, O’Connell said he supports ending these safety precautions.

“Let us make our own choices on how to deal with the virus,” O’Connell said. “Let us make our own decisions. We know what’s right for us, [and] we are intelligent.”

The CDC, however, claimed these actions are necessary to reduce the spread of COVID-19, regardless of the accompanying mental health consequences. 

KFF also showed that the national unemployment rate throughout the pandemic — which hit 14.7% in April — is linked to increases in depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. Without social interactions or employment, O’Connell said happiness is hard to find. 

 “We can’t remain happy if we don’t have jobs and are all alone,” O’Connell said.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with mental health, please contact Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration’s national help hotline  at 1-800-662-HELP.