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Back to normal? Psychologists warn the pandemic could have lasting effects

Mental health professionals are ramping up their efforts to understand the pandemic's impact — and early findings are not encouraging.
Image: People wait in line to get a Covd-19 vaccine at the Broadway Junction subway station in Brooklyn on May 12, 2021.
People wait in line to get a Covd-19 vaccine at the Broadway Junction subway station in Brooklyn, N.Y., on May 12.Spencer Platt / Getty Images

As life slowly returns to some version of normalcy in the U.S., psychologists are confronting a difficult reality: Many people won't be back to normal anytime soon.

That means the work of many mental health professionals is only starting. Psychologists are ramping up efforts to understand how the pandemic has affected Americans’ minds — with an eye on inequality and long-term reverberations.

“I’m very concerned about the effects being long-term,” said Luana Marques, an associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. “Given that — consistently, globally — you’ve seen 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.”

Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, conversations surrounding public health have primarily focused on protecting people’s physical health. As a deadly virus spread across the globe, strategies were developed to contain its spread. 

And with the pandemic brought under control in the U.S. thanks primarily to vaccinations, psychologists say it is time to start focusing on mental health. 

“Our research has shown an increase in depressive symptoms, anxiety symptoms and post-traumatic stress symptoms," said Catherine Ettman, director of strategic development in the dean's office at Boston University School of Public Health and a doctoral student at Brown University School of Public Health. 

Ettman and her team have been studying the mental health effects of the pandemic since March of last year. She said research efforts are significantly increasing in the academic community.

Preliminary findings are not encouraging. A study Ettman and her team published in JAMA Network Open in September looked at depression rates before and during the pandemic. They found depression rates had more than tripled. Around 8.5 percent of the general population reported symptoms of clinical depression before the pandemic, and that number rose to 27.8 percent during the pandemic. 

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey from December found 42 percent of Americans were experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression. Only 11 percent of Americans reported experiencing these symptoms prior to the pandemic. 

Ettman and her team found people who had fewer resources—less wealthy people—were more likely to be exhibiting symptoms of depression than people with ample resources. 

Marques said she’s also noticed wealth has been a “protective factor.”

“Individuals that can quarantine, stay at home, not have to go into work — you’re decreasing the risk and buffering for emotional health consequences,” Marques said.

Marques said there are many reasons someone might experience a deterioration of their mental health during the pandemic. Those factors can include a persistent fear of getting infected by the virus, job loss and extended periods of isolation. She said she’s very worried that if we don’t put enough resources into addressing people’s mental health issues, their problems could be long-lasting.

There is evidence of how national traumas can have these sorts of lasting effects on mental health. A study that was published in the journal Environmental Health in 2019 looked at over 36,000 New York residents and rescue workers 15 years after the 9/11 attacks and found that 14 percent of them still showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Michael Zvolensky, a distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Houston, said there will “most certainly” be long-term effects for the segments of the population that were hardest hit by the pandemic. He said this experience has been a “major life chronic stressor” for nearly everyone and a “traumatic event” for some. 

Addressing these problems doesn’t just mean making sure people have access to mental health care — though that will be important — it also means making sure they feel stable in their lives. Ettman said if people feel financially stable, they’re less likely to experience deterioration of their mental health. Marques echoed this statement.

“You can’t address emotional health if your basic needs are not met,” Marques said. 

The pandemic has disproportionately affected communities of color, Marques noted, so it’ll be especially important to focus on providing those communities with the resources they need. The longer these mental health issues and their causes are not adequately addressed, the more likely it is that they will persist long into the future.