1 in 6 Americans Went Into Therapy for the First Time in 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be so mentally exhausting that 1 in 6 Americans started therapy for the first time during 2020, joining the 31% of Americans who already received therapy, or returned to it, that year.1 The findings come from a survey of 2,000 U.S. adults, commissioned by Vida Health, which shines a spotlight on the mental health toll taken by the pandemic.

Nearly half (45%) of the survey respondents confirmed that the COVID-19 pandemic was the driving reason that triggered them to seek a therapist’s help, with only 15% saying the pandemic did not damage the state of their mental health.2 One respondent even stated, “My ‘depression’ is a direct result of the pandemic, not an ongoing condition.”

What’s more, 15% began taking medication for mental health issues for the first time in 2020, while another 15% changed or increased their prescription medication dosages.

Many of those entering therapy (47%) said they believed doing so was a sign of weakness, but seeking help for overwhelming stress, anxiety, depression or other mental health challenges is actually a sign of strength — and a necessity for many during COVID-19 lockdowns. Vida Health’s chief clinical officer Chris Mosunic, Ph.D., said in a statement:3

“Americans often place other priorities above their own mental health needs, not just because of stigma but because of time. They often see work, home and social responsibilities as being more important than their personal health and well-being. But just as they tell you on airplanes when the oxygen masks come down, we can’t help others if we don’t take care ourselves first.”

COVID-19, Winter Collide to Worsen Mental Health

The winter months are proving to be especially difficult for many — but not because of a concurrent epidemic of flu cases. The loss of daylight hours that occur during winter trigger “winter blues” or the more significant seasonal affective disorder (SAD) in a sizeable portion of the population.

What differentiates SAD from regular depression is that a full remission occurs in the spring and summer months. Common SAD symptoms include oversleeping, intense carbohydrate cravings, overeating and weight gain. Some people also have trouble concentrating and withdraw socially, preferring to “hibernate” indoors instead of engaging in their typical daily activities.4

This, coupled with COVID-19-imposed quarantines, social distancing and lockdowns, is creating a winter unlike any other in recent memory, making the dark days even darker from a mental health perspective. According to the survey, 62% agreed that they feel more depressed during the winter, and 32% said winter is the worst season for their mental health.5

If this sounds familiar, light therapy (including blue light exposure in the morning, but not later in the day) can be helpful in giving your mood a boost, as can optimizing your vitamin D levels, which is useful not only for treating SAD6 but also for warding off infectious disease.

88% Have Symptoms of Mental Health Trauma

The survey also revealed that 88% of respondents reported at least one symptom that’s indicative of mental health trauma, including:7

  • Little interest or pleasure in doing things (52%)
  • Having trouble falling or staying asleep (52%)
  • Feeling down, depressed or hopeless (51%)

Among U.S. young adults aged 18 to 30 years, high levels of depression, anxiety and PTSD symptoms were also reported from April 13 to May 19, 2020,8 which is about one month after a state of emergency was declared in the U.S. due to COVID-19 and when heavy restrictions were in place in most areas. Another team of researchers looking into the psychosocial impact of COVID-19 similarly reported:9

“Disease itself multiplied by forced quarantine to combat COVID-19 applied by nationwide lockdowns can produce acute panic, anxiety, obsessive behaviors, hoarding, paranoia, and depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the long run.”

Experts also agree that the disruptions to traditional grief rituals, including the ability to say goodbye and viewing and burial of the body, are likely to increase symptoms of prolonged grief disorder (PGD).10 Being forced to go through the loss and grieving process in social isolation and without the comfort of long-held bereavement rituals is a “recipe for a psychiatric pandemic,” according to researchers from the Iran University of Medical Sciences.11

They’re among many sounding an alarm that COVID-19 social distancing and quarantine polices are increasing the likelihood of PGD, making an already difficult life event even harder to process. They stated:12

“Millions of people around the world have experienced the loss of a loved one due to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. Given the restrictive lockdown regulations and stay-at-home orders, most of these individuals did not get a chance to say goodbye to their loved ones, properly to have a funeral/ceremony for their loss or to bury them.

As a result, millions of individuals have not experienced a regular grief cycle that enables individuals to rapidly adjust to the situation and recover themselves.”

These profound disruptions are expected to compound mental health challenges, leading to a wave of unresolved bereavement, depression and PTSD as humans are robbed of their ability to participate in age-old bereavement rituals.13

68% of Americans Feel Defeated

Many Americans feel they’re battling their own personal crisis as a result of the pandemic, with 68% of Americans surveyed saying they feel defeated going into 2021. Of them, 63% said the COVID-19 pandemic is what took the wind out of their sails. Other deflating experiences over the past year include:14

  • Not being able to enjoy pre-COVID activities (45%)
  • The presidential election (45%)
  • The spread of misinformation (35%)
  • The 24/7 news cycle (30%)

The drastic changes that took place in 2020 have also left many Americans neglecting their personal health, with more than half saying they feel too overwhelmed to make their health a priority, and 56% saying they’re struggling to find an effective wellness routine.15

The American Psychological Association’s Stress in America 2020 survey, released in May 2020 and conducted in partnership with The Harris Poll, reveals more of the same.

High stress levels related to coronavirus are described as “the new normal” for parents, while people of color were also more likely than white adults to report that the pandemic was causing significant stressors in their life, particularly related to fears of getting COVID-19 and having access to basic needs and health care services.16

A report by the Well Being Trust and the Robert Graham Center for Policy Studies in Family Medicine and Primary Care also estimated that up to 75,000 people may die from drug or alcohol misuse and suicide during the COVID-19 pandemic. These “deaths of despair” are expected to be exacerbated by three factors already at play:17

  • Unprecedented economic failure paired with massive unemployment
  • Mandated social isolation for months and possible residual isolation for years
  • Uncertainty caused by the sudden emergence of a novel, previously unknown microbe

COVID Has Tripled Depression Symptoms

The full mental health fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic won’t be clear for years, but already researchers revealed that the prevalence of depression symptoms increased by more than threefold — from 8.5% before COVID-19 to 27.8% during the pandemic.18

Exposure to a greater number of stressors was associated with a higher risk of depression during COVID-19, as was lower income and having less than $5,000 in savings. The latter was associated with a 1.5-fold increase in the risk of depression symptoms, which represents a 50% greater risk.

The loneliness and isolation that many people are experiencing as a result of prolonged social distancing and isolation are only exacerbating the problem. Social isolation increases the likelihood of mortality by 29%, while loneliness increases it by 26%.19

A rapid review of the evidence, published in The Lancet in March 2020 also looked into the psychological impact of quarantine, finding — not surprisingly — “Most reviewed studies reported negative psychological effects including post-traumatic stress symptoms, confusion and anger.”20

Out of 2,760 quarantined people, 34% experienced high levels of psychological distress, which could include anxiety or depression.21 A number of stressors during quarantine were also noted, including:

Longer quarantine duration

Infection fears

Frustration

Boredom

Inadequate supplies

Inadequate information

Financial loss

Stigma

Tending to Your Mental Health Is More Important Than Ever

If you’re struggling mentally or emotionally, seeing a therapist can help. Cognitive behavioral therapy works as well as antidepressants and may reduce your risk of relapse even after it’s stopped.22 However, not everyone chooses to go this route, often either believing their problems aren’t “big enough” to necessitate a therapist or thinking that they can “handle their own problems.”23

It’s important not to ignore your mental health, however, and maintaining positive habits is essential. Exercise is a natural antidepressant and there are many workouts available online that you can do at home, even during self-quarantine. Getting outdoors for a walk in nature is also mentally soothing and something that many people can do daily.

If you’re feeling socially isolated, reach out to friends and family, connecting online or in person as you feel comfortable. For feelings of stress and anxiety directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic, releasing negative emotions is recommended.

In the video above, Julie Schiffman, an Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) practitioner, shows how to use EFT to feel safe in the world post-lockdown. One of the best things about EFT is that once you learn the technique, you can do it anywhere and it only takes a few minutes. If you’re facing PTSD or another serious mental health challenge, it’s recommended that you recruit the help of a professional EFT practitioner.

However, for general anxiety and uneasiness related to the post-quarantine world, I invite you to use the following resources to learn the mechanics of EFT, as well to help you gain an appreciation for its wide-ranging application for better mental health:

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