The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting people’s mental health.
In a July 2020 tracking poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), 53 percent of adults in the U.S. reported negative impacts on their mental health from anxieties caused by the global health crisis. That number was up from 32 percent in March, an indication that the longer the pandemic goes on, the more psychologically damaging it will be.
“What starts as anxiety and mood swings [that] people perceive as very temporary can develop [into] more persistent anxiety disorders or depression, the longer this goes on,” Dr. Samantha Meltzer-Brody, Assad Meymandi Distinguished Professor and chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, tells Business Insider.
A key reason for the trend of deteriorating mental health during the pandemic is the lack of control people have had over their own lives during the contagion’s spread and resultant social and environmental changes. “Events that are threatening, are uncontrollable, and have a lot of uncertainty are really toxic to mental health,” explains Karestan Koenen, an epidemiologist and professor of psychiatric epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in the same article.
George S. Everly, an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health calls the pandemic “a disaster of uncertainty,” adding that “the greater the uncertainty surrounding a disaster, the greater the psychological casualties.”
As more and more people are reporting their inability to cope with the crisis, researchers are investing their time and energy to study the potential long-term effects on mental health so healthcare providers can effectively treat those who are struggling.
How the Pandemic Is Affecting Long-Term Mental Health
The overall chaotic response by public health officials and government leaders to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus has created roadblocks for individuals trying to cope with COVID-19 in a healthy way. The policies of social distancing and isolation have been the most damaging to mental health.
The Link Between Social Isolation and Mental Health
One of the first pieces of guidance from public health officials was for people to distance themselves from each other to keep the virus from spreading. With very little known about the novel coronavirus when it started spreading, leaders turned to isolation as the first line of defense.
The problem is that humans are social creatures by nature and “social relationships are an incredibly important buffer against the negative consequences of stress,” says Katie McLaughlin, John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. Without those interactions, especially for extended periods of time, people are more likely to experience long-term psychological effects.
The KFF poll report shows 47 percent of people who were sheltering in place reported negative mental health effects related to the coronavirus restrictions. Of those not sheltering in place, 37 percent reported mental health struggles. The danger is that as more time passes, “more extreme psychological effects” will begin to manifest, says Jerry Reed, senior vice president for practice leadership at the Education Development Center and member of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention.
The Link Between Sudden Economic Struggle and Mental Health
The social distancing mandates issued by public health and government officials also had a significant impact on the economic stability of millions of people who either lost their jobs or were forced to take significant pay cuts.
Financial stress aside, work is good for people’s self-esteem and sense of purpose. Those self-confidence building attributes get battered when individuals suffer job loss, often contributing to mental illness. Numerous studies over the years have shown that unemployment is associated with mental depression, anxiety and stress.
“There are monetary reasons and financial reasons for working, but it’s also a way to feel connected to others. So, job loss has a huge impact on several fronts,” says neuropsychologist Brittany LeMonda, an assistant professor at Lenox Hill Hospital/Northwell Health.
The longer that unemployment or financial strain lasts, the more likely people are to report signs of mental health deterioration, according to a 2014 Gallup report on the effects of unemployment on depression. While the economy is starting to open up and people are returning to work, there is no way to determine when the health crisis will be “over.” And even when it is passed, the “new normal” may be the next struggle as countless businesses have had to shutter and others have had to rework their operating models to survive.
For unemployed workers, the future of work is uncertain, compounding the stress of losing jobs and dealing with COVID-19.
The Link Between Burnout and Mental Health
The unemployed aren’t the only ones coping with mental health challenges during COVID-19. Essential workers who have been on the front lines of the health crisis are also struggling with the psychological stresses of the pandemic.
“The fear [of this virus] accompanied by the increased workload and changing workflow has been challenging,” says registered nurse Georgia Brewer. The 20-year nursing veteran describes working on the frontlines of the pandemic as one the “most mentally challenging assignments” of her career.
Front-line workers have struggled not only with job demands, but with shortages of personal protective equipment, risk of infection, upended home lives and a lack of sleep. As the pandemic lingers, these workers’ mental well-being continues to be at risk. “The idea that they must act superhuman, despite all odds, is an unhealthy recipe for burnout,” says psychologist Dr. Logan Jones.
The Link Between Suffering from COVID-19 and Mental Health
For many people who have contracted the virus, their road to recovery doesn’t end once the physical symptoms disappear. “We would say that perhaps between 30% and 50% of people with an infection that has clinical manifestations are going to have some form of mental health issues,” says Dr. Teodor Postolache, professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, tells STAT.
Those that have battled the virus are especially prone to mental health problems long-term because they are often isolated, left to fight not only the disease but the loneliness and fear that comes from being infected and quarantined. In the same article, Dr. Wes Ely, a pulmonologist and critical care physician at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, says COVID-19 patients are “having either post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorder, depression, or cognitive impairment, and some combination of all of that,” preluding neurologic and mental health problems down the road.
There is still a lot to learn about what the long-term impacts of COVID-19 will be on mental health. As researchers continue to study and learn more about this disease and its effects, they will be relying on medical affairs teams to disseminate their findings and insights to stakeholders who need it to help treat patients struggling to overcome the mental health challenges that are manifesting as a result of the pandemic.
How MA Informs on Pandemic-Related Mental Health Issues
Everyone is relying on the scientific community to study and understand the impacts of COVID-19, especially as it becomes more apparent there will be long-term ramifications on people’s mental well-being. It falls on researchers then to provide fact-based, useful information to mitigate the effects of mental illnesses that are barriers to correctly managing the social crisis, writes a team of doctors, led by Gianluca Serafini, from the University of Genoa.
As researchers make progress, they are relying on medical affairs teams to share that information with key stakeholders, such as fellow scientists, healthcare professionals, mental health advocates, the media and public health officials. That role has become especially important throughout the pandemic because of the rapid-fire spread of misinformation and high levels of anxiety around the uncertainties of the virus.
MA Teams Keep Stakeholders Informed on Science’s Progress
People are most afraid of what they don’t know or understand. The big question that has stayed on everybody’s mind during the pandemic is how soon will we have the resources to fight the coronavirus and its physical and mental impacts. The only ones who can address these concerns are the scientists researching every aspect of the previously-unknown virus.
MA teams are perfectly situated to be the information-bearers to the rest of the world. Because they’ve built relationships with key stakeholders, they can become the most trusted source of information regarding the impacts of COVID-19.
MA Teams Fight Misinformation Around COVID-19
The epidemic has triggered what the World Health Organization has labeled a “massive infodemic.” The demand for information has outpaced the scientific community’s understanding of the virus, creating a scenario where information, no matter its veracity, is disseminated in an effort to answer questions. That over-abundance of information makes it difficult for individuals to determine what is trustworthy, notes the WHO.
This contributes directly to the rise of coronavirus-triggered mental health issues.
That’s where medical affairs teams can have the biggest impact — correcting misinformation and sharing reliable facts from researchers about the virus. This not only serves to buffer negative effects of falsities but also facilitates better understanding of the virus which may help people cope better with the crisis.
MA Teams Bridge Communication Gaps Between Stakeholders
Improving patient outcomes is an end-goal of medical research. For that to happen, different groups, such as healthcare providers and public health officials, have to be able to work together. For example, a mental health advocate building a campaign to increase awareness around depression during the pandemic may need the insights of a healthcare professional on the scientific findings behind the connection. That information would have to come from the researchers.
It’s a network of interconnected audiences, but collaboration isn’t always simple.
MA teams are positioned to take a proactive role in forging those cross-industry partnerships, says Viraj Deodatta Rajadhyaksha, international oncology medical director for AstraZeneca. The fight against COVID-19 has given MA teams the perfect platform to embrace this role of facilitator. By opening up lines of communication between these groups, MAs help ensure accurate information, as developed by researchers, is disseminated to all stakeholders.
There’s no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic will have an enduring impact on the mental health of individuals who have had to simply survive this time of abrupt change and unexpected chaos.
Exactly how extensive that damage will be may not be known for years to come, but the public health crisis caused by COVID-19 has “alarming implications for individual and collective health and emotional and social functioning,” write doctors Betty Pfefferbaum and Carol S. North, in an article in The New England Journal of Medicine.
Medical affairs teams have an important role to play in mitigating the impact of those implications by sharing scientific knowledge with key stakeholders who are on the front-lines of the battle against mental health deterioration due to COVID-19. By fostering relationships with stakeholders, encouraging collaboration, and stopping the spread of misinformation, MA teams are facilitating greater understanding and more effective treatment of pandemic-related mental illness.
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