As I pointed out last week, we are marching through summer with two sets of habits: some good, some bad. Some of these habits existed before the pandemic and some were established during. This situation is sure to affect behavioral standards in the months and years ahead. However, at present, we cannot say exactly how. As for how the ordeal of the pandemic has affected the public’s mental health, some experts believe that the long-term impact will not be fully known for decades. The only certainty seems to be that we are not emerging from COVID as the same people we were 15 or 16 months ago.
As for mental health, the challenges we are facing are becoming clearer. Recently reported by USA Today, college grads are entering their professional lives depressed and anxious. “Numerous studies conducted since last March have shown that depression has spiked among college-age young adults,” writes Lindsay Schnell. The fact that these graduates must now join the workforce without the free or cheap mental health care services available at college has many economists worried.
“People need to understand: This is not your dad’s college experience. Students today are under a lot of pressure,” says Tiffany O’Meara, a psychologist with the University of California, San Diego’s Counseling and Psychological Services.
When it comes to mental health challenges, it seems no age group will be coming out of the pandemic unscathed. “Even as the nation reopens, mental health and child development experts wonder about what, if any, long-term mental health and developmental consequences young children may face,” writes Leah Gullet in a recent Kaiser Heath News Report. “In the short term, medical and child development experts said the pandemic has harmed even young children’s mental health and caused them to miss important parts of typical social and emotional development.”
“Coronavirus is impacting children and families in many ways mentally,” explains Dr. Mini Tandon, an associate professor of psychiatry at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “The biggest and most obvious way is in the children’s structure and routine. Young kids thrive in structure and routine, so when you disrupt that, things go awry pretty quickly in their day-to-day lives.” Adding the trauma of family stress of parents losing their jobs or getting sick or being forced to change caregiving arrangements causes the mental toll to mount.
“U.S. middle-aged adults are confronting more parenting pressures than ever before,” writes Frank J. Infurna, an associate professor of psychology at Arizona State University in a post on theconversation.com. Even before the pandemic hit, “deaths of despair” and chronic pain among middle-aged adults had been increasing for at least a decade. “Today’s middle-aged adults — ages 40 to 65 — report more daily stress and poorer physical health and psychological well-being, compared to middle-aged adults during the 1990s,” says Infurna. Many are required to take on caregiving-related duties for their aging parents and other relatives while continuing with full-time work and taking care of school-aged children.
It is now commonly known that older adults were most vulnerable to the risks posed by COVID-19. “Yet, young adults and middle-aged adults are showing the most vulnerabilities in their well-being,” says Infurna. “Studies are documenting that they are currently reporting more psychological distress and stressors and poorer well-being, compared to older adults.”
“Middle-aged adults form the backbone of society,” Infurna adds. If we are to thrive, ensuring their “success, productivity, health and well-being” is essential.
According to an Associated Press report, when the pandemic struck in the U.S., an estimated one in four adults were considered obese. Another one in three were overweight. For many who were suffering with an eating disorder, “2021 was a triggering year.” Here is where it gets interesting. It was not just a year of eating disorder setbacks, but also a year of improved health.
“It’s often not until a major health scare, like a heart attack or a notable deterioration in lifestyle, that people are motivated to lose weight,” says Eric Plaisance, an obesity researcher at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Jennifer Bergin, a 50-year-old resident of Charlotte, North Carolina, is one example. As reported by the AP, she was already obese and pre-diabetic before the pandemic. She then learned she had high blood pressure. No longer commuting to an office meant she had ample time for walking. Eating out less also gave her greater control over what she ate. Worrying about the consequences of contracting COVID-19 motivated her to begin a regime of walking three hours a day. She eventually lost 60 pounds with the goal of continuing her healthy habits. At the same time, for others, “being stuck at home meant moving less and eating more because of stress, anxiety, depression — or just proximity to the kitchen,” the AP reports.
Such dueling behaviors is also associated with personality shifts. According to a new survey conducted by the Oracle Corporation that was released in May, 86% of Americans reported a change in personality due to the pandemic. The survey, conducted in April 2021, reflects the finding of a representative sample group of 2,000 U.S. adults (18 years or older) in the United States.
“We experienced several paradoxes over the last 13 plus months” says a statement from Nate Skinner, senior vice president, Oracle Advertising and Customer Experience.
“We were lonely, yet more connected online. We were bored, yet took on many new hobbies. We were isolated from in-person learning, yet still feel smarter.”
In August 2020, the Pew Research Center released a year-long survey on Americans’ views and reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic. “The vast majority of Americans (89%) mentioned at least one negative change in their own lives, while a smaller share (though still a 73% majority) mentioned at least one unexpected upside,” Pew reports. “Younger and more educated Americans were more likely to mention silver linings, while women were more likely than men to mention challenges or difficulties.”