COVID-19, Mental Health, and Substance Use

Beyond the immediate impacts on health and economic security, COVID-19 is threatening our mental health. As we move towards 2021 with the prospects of (hopefully) soon being out of this pandemic with new vaccines on the horizon, the stress, uncertainty, and isolation are not over yet.  Stress isn’t something we only experience in the moment.  It can be cumulative.  And, the longer we experience it, the longer it’s effects can linger.

In August, the CDC released a study on the effects of COVID-19 related stress. While this isn’t a surprise, the real danger will be in the long-lingering effects this continued stress has on these vulnerable groups.  The study looked at self-reported mental health outcomes such as anxiety, depression, and trauma-related stress disorder symptoms, as well as substance use and serious suicidal ideation in 5,412 adults.  

Compared to the same time the previous year, people reported a 25% increase in anxiety, depression, and TRSD symptoms, and a 10% increase in both substance use and suicidal ideation.  Young adults, racial and ethnic minorities, essential workers, and unpaid adult care-givers (caring for an adult family member) experienced significantly worse mental health and substance use outcomes.  

The danger is assuming that once life returns to “normal,” these negative outcomes will disappear.

Stress reactions will linger as will the harmful coping strategies practiced during this time.  Typically, younger adults are the most susceptible to developing substance use disorders, and are less likely to be able to afford recovery resources.  Many healthcare providers and recovery services have stepped up to provide telehealth, online recovery groups such as AA and NA, and on-demand resources.  

Most notably, under an emergency measure, providers are able to prescribe medication for opioid use disorders such as buprenorphine through telehealth visits, often subsidized through medicaid or other publicly funded programs. A major concern is that this measure will be lifted prematurely before economic recovery and while social distancing measures are still necessary.  This would remove access to life-saving treatment to many in rural and underserved areas. Legislature has been introduced to extend substance use telehealth visits.  

For now, the tools exist to promote recovery and turn the tides on this disheartening trend.