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Opinion Covid-19 has shed light on another pandemic of depression, anxiety and grief

Tammy Benewiat peers through a window at her husband, who is on a ventilator inside a room for patients with the coronavirus at a hospital in Hutchinson, Kan., on Nov. 20. (Callaghan O'Hare/Reuters)

Erin N. Marcus is a professor of clinical medicine at the University of Miami and a Public Voices fellow.

Along with the resurgence of covid-19, an insidious and less perceptible pandemic has arisen: one of anxiety, depression and grief.

It’s a phenomenon I’ve seen among people seeking help in the primary care clinic where I work. I think of the woman who, after her mother and sister died of covid, lost the motivation to take her diabetes medication, or do much of anything else. The man who recovered from covid but who now can’t sleep because of flashbacks to his time in the hospital. The woman whose adult children recovered from covid — but who is so anxious about venturing out of her tiny apartment that her normally well-controlled blood pressure has rocketed to dangerously high levels.

My observations are consistent with those of national surveys, which have found significant increases in depression and anxiety during the pandemic. In one large nationwide survey, U.S. adults were more than three times more likely to screen positive for anxiety and depressive disorders, compared with one year earlier. Another survey found a significant increase in alcohol use.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

Those surveys were conducted in April through June, before the spread of the coronavirus escalated to encompass the entire nation. Today, it’s likely that the psychological toll is much worse. Every person who dies of covid-19 leaves behind, on average, nine close family members — a grandchild, son, daughter, brother, sister, spouse, mother or father. The grief experienced by those surviving family members and friends is a normal reaction to loss. But some psychologists fear that the circumstances of covid-19 — in which people might die unexpectedly or alone, and without the normal rituals of community remembrance such as a memorial service — may increase the likelihood of prolonged grief disorder, a disabling condition that can last years and raise the risk of suicide or alcohol and drug abuse.

More than 1 in 10 adult American workers are employed in the health-care sector, and many of them have witnessed events that leave them vulnerable to post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological consequences. Other Americans have lost their jobs, which itself can cause anxiety and depression.

Mental illnesses increase a person’s likelihood of developing other health problems, such as heart disease. They also significantly affect productivity, costing employers billions annually. To get our country on track toward some sort of normalcy, President-elect Joe Biden’s pandemic advisory board will need to address our nation’s psychological recovery.

Even before the pandemic, a shortage of mental health professionals — and a lack of adequate insurance coverage — made it difficult if not impossible for many people to get timely and appropriate care. Psychiatric and psychological services are often put in a separate silo by insurance companies, making it tough for primary care physicians and nurses to refer patients. People often don’t want to go to a mental health professional, both because of a perceived stigma and because it’s so difficult to jump through the bureaucratic hoops to get this care.

But there are affordable ways to begin to tackle these problems. Given that primary care physicians and nurses are likely to see anxious and depressed people, it makes sense for us to be trained to routinely screen everyone and provide some initial counseling — with adequate backup when we need to refer patients. Low-cost community mental health clinics, which have long been inundated with patients, need to be expanded so that they can accommodate more people, and need to be paid adequately for telephone counseling. Telehealth support groups, led by trained mental health professionals, have been helpful for front-line health workers during the pandemic. Perhaps this strategy could be expanded to help the general public as well.

Peer support programs — in which people who themselves have experienced anxiety and depression are trained to help others — may be a way of reaching more people. Peer support has been endorsed by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which is issuing 16-month emergency grants to states to provide assistance for mental health and substance abuse disorders during covid-19; that effort may need to be continued. Public advertising campaigns — perhaps in conjunction with the National Ad Council’s efforts to promote vaccine acceptance — could help de-stigmatize mental illness, help people realize they may be experiencing symptoms, and provide information about where to go for treatment. Social workers and other trained counselors need to be placed in schools, in workplaces and in community centers to make it easier for everyone to get help.

These actions would help address the psychological needs created by the pandemic — and might in the longer term begin to improve a rickety system that has failed to reach so many for far too long.

Read more:

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Nora Loreto: Canada’s covid-19 crisis needs a targeted response. When will its leaders learn?

Emily Oster: Schools are not spreading covid-19. This new data makes the case.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will likely knock out monoclonal antibodies, targeted drugs that can be used as a treatment or to protect immunocompromised people.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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