The destruction that Covid-19 has created is immediately evident in the number of cumulative deaths. As I write this, over 353,000 Americans have died from Covid-19, and CDC’s national ensemble forecast suggests that by January 23, 2021, this number may increase to 424,000. Think about this — in a span of fewer than three weeks, Covid-19 may kill an additional 71,000 people.
I have tried before to make the magnitude of the current Covid-19 surge more comprehensible, for instance visualizing Covid-19 deaths in the US using the tiniest mark on the digital page. I have also discussed the reasons behind the third wave. But I have not written about the psychological pain that many Americans are now experiencing.
The number of Americans who are anxious, scared, depressed, or lonely has increased during the pandemic. By one estimate, depression has risen by a factor of 3. Another study about loneliness among people aged 18-35 concluded that 43% of surveyed adults have experienced “high loneliness” as a result of physical distancing measures that are used to control the novel coronavirus’ spread.
There are many other examples of peer-reviewed studies that provide an estimate of the psychological distress that the pandemic has created. An article published by the Journal of the American Medical Association even assigned an economic figure to the pandemic’s emotional harm — $1.58 trillion.
All of this leads me to the following thought: How has the pandemic changed us? As an infectious disease ecologist, I think in terms of differential equations and compartmental models — mathematical tools that can be used to understand and measure the spread of disease in populations, to help guide public policy and decision making. But understanding how the pandemic has changed us as individuals requires stepping back from mathematics. Our mental health is directly associated with our social connections with family and friends, and with regular routine. While the long-term mental health effects of Covid-19 are not yet fully understood, our experience with previous disasters suggests they will be significant.
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The psychological consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic have been compared to Hurricane Katrina and the manmade disaster of 9/11. And psychological distress, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has appeared in first responders and medical professionals who care for infected patients and comfort their families. However, what is particularly alarming is that the severity of the mental health crisis is expected to increase. According to a survey released by Gallop, the nation’s mental health is at the lowest point than at any time in the previous 20 years. Another study released by Mental Health America (MHA) reported that the number of people who have thought about suicide or self-harm is higher than ever recorded since the screening program was begun in 2014.
A December 16 statement released by the American Psychiatric Association and 13 other organizations reports that “the mental health crisis that has evolved with the COVID pandemic is unprecedented… mental health needs to be the priority of everyone, particularly now in the context of COVID-19 and everything that has gone on this year.” The coalition of 14 organizations announced a roadmap for transforming mental health care to cope with the Covid-19 crisis and future mental health emergencies and will engage with the new federal administration, governors, and key elected officials in 50 states to introduce it. We still have a long way to go. However, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are now available and distribution is ramping up. America proved resilient in the first wave of Covid-19 last winter. Through grit, determination, and compassion I believe we can remain strong. These are reasons for hope.