The Effect Of The Pandemic On Mental Health And Substance Abuse In The US


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The onset of Covid-19 changed the lives of people drastically. From work environments to personal lifestyles, everything changed significantly. Many companies started shutting down or introduced crucial alterations to their existing systems. For instance, work from home began, and remote working increased. Similarly, on the personal front, people were required to practice social distancing. All these things had a toll on the mental well-being of people and even led to greater substance abuse in the US. 

What do the statistics say about mental health in the US before and after the pandemic?

Mental health is an important factor that impacts the overall well-being of a person. In the US, even before the pandemic began, the country was already battling with a high number of people suffering from mental health issues. As of 2016, 1 in every 5 adults (aged 18 and above) dealt with a mental illness. This meant that approximately 20% of the US population suffered from anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, or another similar mental condition before Covid-19. The global pandemic has only worsened the problem. 

Various studies claim that there has been a significant rise in the number of people showing symptoms associated with mental ill-health after Covid-19. For instance, The Standard reported that during the pandemic both substance abuse and mental illnesses among workers increased. The percentage of workers dealing with poor mental conditions rose from 39% in 2019 to 46% in 2020. Out of these, 11% of workers are suffering from a serious mental illness. Considering that approximately 63% of the US population is a part of the workforce, it is quite easy to imagine the extent of the populace affected by mental ill-health. 

What do the statistics say about substance abuse in the US before and after the pandemic?

Substance abuse is a crucial problem in the US that is increasing despite substantial efforts taken to contain it. Substance abuse mainly involves the consumption of drugs and alcohol. It has a range of harmful effects on every aspect of an individual’s life. People who are addicted to any substance usually have difficulties in maintaining a stable family and work life. This is accompanied by financial problems, loss of productivity, and crime. The sad fact that more and more youngsters are falling into the trip is disheartening. As of 2017, 19.7 million people aged 12 and above dealt with substance use disorder in the US. 

In most cases, mental illness and substance use follow each other. For instance, a mentally disoriented person is more likely to engage in substance abuse. Similarly, an individual with substance use disorder has a higher probability of having poor mental health. This observation is supported by the fact that in 2017, 8.5 million adults in the US suffered from both substance abuse and mental health disorder. These statistics have turned scarier since the pandemic. 

If a person has substance use disorder, is he more likely to get Covid-19?

Research shows that people who consumed drugs or had substance use disorder were at a greater risk of getting affected by Covid-19. It is because use of drugs has a significant impact on the body. For instance, intake of opioids slows breathing, cocaine can lead to chronic health and lung diseases, and the practice of vaping also affects the lungs. Since Coronarvirus primarily affects the respiratory system, people with substance use disorder are in greater danger of acquiring a severe illness due to the virus. A study conducted in 2020 showed that people engaged in substance abuse were 1.5 times more likely to have Covid-19 than those who did not. Furthermore, these individuals also had a greater probability of experiencing severe outcomes such as hospitalization and even death. 

Which population groups are more prone to mental illness during the pandemic?

Studies claim that the following groups were more affected by the pandemic than others:

  1. Elderly people: In the US, the population of people above the age of 65 increased from 37.2 million (2006) to 49.2 million (2016). The probable reason this group suffered from deteriorating mental health is that initially the Covid-19 virus was targeted more at older people. Secondly, they tend to have lower immunity than others. Hence, they are at a greater risk of having Covid-19. Lastly, many of them saw their friends and colleagues pass away during the pandemic. All these factors must have harmed their mental well-being. 
  2. Professionals: Workers suffered from immense mental stress because of concerns over job security and income stability. 
  3. Essential workers: Essential workers such as healthcare professionals showed a high degree of mental strain. These people were directly involved with treating patients. They were not only at a greater risk of contacting Covid-19 but also had massive work pressure in taking care of the increasing number of patients. Healthcare professionals were also more likely to have suicidal thoughts than other groups. 
  4. Children and Teenagers: Kids also showed signs of deteriorating mental health. Some common changes that have been reported are increased sadness, difficulty in concentration, changes in sleeping and eating patterns.

Covid-19 has also significantly affected the mental health of young adults (falling in the age group of 18-24), women, communities of color, and people with medical conditions. 

What are the possible mental conditions people suffered from as a result of the pandemic?

  1. Panic Disorder: It is an anxiety disorder that causes panic attacks. People feel terror even when they are not in a dangerous situation. 
  2. Agoraphobia: Agoraphobia refers to the fear of places and situations that may cause an individual to panic or feel helpless. In the case of Covid-19, it is associated with the fear of using public transport, being in a crowd, or standing in an open space. 
  3. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): It  is a mental condition where patients have unreasonable fears or obsessions that lead to repetitive (compulsive actions). For instance, the Covid-19 pandemic required people to sanitize their hands regularly. Excessive sanitization of hands, however, developed into an OCD among many.
  4. Social Phobia: Social phobia is a mental condition where social interactions cause distress to individuals. Since Covid-19 involved social distancing norms, restrictions many people suffered from social anxiety even after the relaxations were relaxed. This hampered their daily routines and relationships with others. 
  5. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) occurs when a person is unable to recover from a traumatic experience. There are several reasons why the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in this problem. One of them is the increasing number of deaths due to Covid-19. 
  6. Substance Use and Addiction Disorders: As mentioned earlier, substance use disorder involves compulsive intake of drugs and alcohol despite knowing their adverse consequences. A report suggested that almost 150,000 people in the US were at risk of dying because of substance abuse due to coronavirus distress.

Other mental conditions include illness anxiety disorder, eating, and sleeping disorders, and depression. 

How did Covid-19 accelerate mental disorders and substance abuse in the US?

Covid-19 hit the world unexpectedly and created a tumult globally. The initial period was filled with confusion, stress, and vital changes happening in the routines and lifestyles of people. No doubt, it did take a toll on the mental well-being of people. The possible reasons for the same are many. Some of them are:

1.Health-related anxieties: The pandemic created a panic among the people as nobody knew exactly how to deal with the disease. The possibility of getting infected by the deadly virus, the chance of being admitted to a hospital, and the likelihood of unknowingly passing on the infection to others strained people. Further, the media coverage of how the number of deaths was rising in certain countries, and the bar graph showing cases rising rapidly, worsened the situation. Individuals were fearful for their lives and that of their loved ones. The uncertainty The fear created stress and anxiety, which ultimately affected the mental health of the people.

2.Financial insecurity: Before the pandemic began, the US economy was flourishing with low unemployment rates and low inflation. However, governments had to temporarily close down markets, shopping malls, restaurants, offices, and other areas. In short, a substantial portion of the US economy was shut after Covid-19 struck. While various companies went digital and introduced new systems that helped them adapt to the changes, many businesses closed. Organizations also started looking for cost-cutting measures such as laying off employees or paying them lower salaries. Moreover, remote working increased.

All these factors caused individuals to worry about their financial security. US workers stressed their ability to meet their living and family expenses. Fear of job loss affected the workers’ productivity to a great extent. Lack of financial and health support from management and poor communication created problems further. Matters like less job security, less housing stability, piling debt, and income loss undoubtedly had a devastating impact on people’s mental health. 

3.Changes in lifestyle: With Covid-19 came numerous rules and regulations that transformed the way people lived. Wearing masks, maintaining social distancing, and working from home became the regular norm. The imposition of lockdown to contain the spread of the virus impacted the people’s freedom to travel, meet friends, or stay outdoors. In the case of students, universities closed and online classes began. 

In the US, surveys show that several people presented higher signs of loneliness than before. The inability of individuals to socialize or travel resulted in boredom. More and more people showed signs of worry and distress. This is because long-term social distancing can cause Agoraphobia among people. Domestic problems and family tensions while staying together in lockdown caused psychological distress among Americans. Research also showed that since the need for social interaction is greater among youngsters than older people, they were more vulnerable to get distressed. 

What steps are being taken to improve the situation?

Since the pandemic, the focus on mental health issues and substance abuse have increased tremendously.Several things are being done to conquer the ill effects of the pandemic on the mental health of people.Here are some of them:

  1. Effective use of gadgets and social media to facilitate communication: Technological advancement has made communication easier. Through social media and apps like FaceTime, WhatsApp, skype, etc. people were able to maintain regular contact to avoid feeling lonely and isolated. Furthermore, social media is a great platform to generate awareness about mental health and is being used for the same.  
  2. Limited exposure to Covid-19 related news: At present, there are various unanswered questions related to Covid-19. As half knowledge is dangerous, inadequate knowledge leads to misinformation which causes panic and distress among people. It is for this reason, exposure to Covid-19 related news must be limited to the extent necessary. 
  3. Online courses: Online learning apps such as Coursera and edX are regularly introducing new courses. Many people used the lockdown period in developing their skills and expanding their knowledge through such apps. Improving existing skills and acquiring new ones not only helped in clearing boredom but also gave them an attractive skill-set to market in the industry. 
  4. Virtual Consultations: Virtual consultations are increasing to help people suffering from mental illnesses express their feelings and find peace. 
  5. Telemedicine: Now, it has become easier for people having substance use disorders to get proper care due to telemedicine. Insurance providers and organizations are increasingly offering telehealth options to help people in dealing with their mental and physical health problems. Improved access to telemedicine and telehealth has allowed people suffering from substance abuse to seek mental health care remotely.
  6. Management support: Various companies have also launched numerous schemes and health insurance programs to support their employees. Workshops, seminars, free counseling, and therapy sessions are some of these. 


The Covid-19 pandemic undoubtedly disrupted the fabric of everyday life to a great extent. While the initial period was tough, filled with confusion and fear, many steps have been taken to improve the situation. For instance, nearly every individual is vaccinated in the US today. People now feel much safer and equipped to deal with the virus as compared to last year.

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