COVID-19 Continues to Strain Our Mental Health. Here’s What That Means in the Long-Term—and How Tech Can Help

By Josh Childs

While it may start to be feeling like “business as usual,” the pandemic is anything but. We’ve gotten used to masking, vaccination and distancing. We wash our hands until our knuckles crack. We’re finding ways to connect with one another and gathering safely whenever we can. But the pandemic’s ongoing impact on the mental health of adults, adolescents and healthcare workers is a continuing issue, and one that poses numerous challenges as we enter the third year of Covid-19. 

According to surveys conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), the number of Americans reporting anxiety or depressive disorder has increased from an already-high 1 in 10 before the pandemic to a troubling 4 in 10 during the pandemic. More than half of adolescents and young adults aged 18-24 reported anxiety and depression-related symptoms due to the pandemic. And according to a survey of healthcare workers conducted by Mental Health America, 86% of healthcare workers polled reported symptoms of anxiety, and large shares of healthcare workers reported feelings of burnout, stress, compassion fatigue and more. 

As someone whose family was directly impacted by mental health struggles during the pandemic, I spent a lot of time in facility waiting rooms and chatting with care providers. These places and these people are overrun with demand—even finding a therapist who can take on new patients is a challenge. With nowhere to turn and a lack of structural support, we might start to lose these all-too-important mental health care providers. Here’s what’s going on in the United States, and where we can improve the system to make sure nobody—healthcare providers included—falls through the cracks. 

A Deeper Look into Covid-19’s Impact on Our Mental Health

Our brains have a remarkable capacity to accommodate new information and adapt to changing circumstances. But prolonged uncertainty is directly correlated with anxiety and depression, and this pandemic is nothing if not a perfect representation of prolonged uncertainty. Our brains simply don’t like to exist in this “uncertain” or “ambiguous” state—it means we expend mental energy trying to predict what might happen, and that’s exhausting. It also means we might fall into a trap of catastrophic, worst-case-scenario thinking, which can increase anxiety and depression. And, lest we forget, we’ve lost over 777,000 Americans to Covid-19. That means an untold hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of individuals are dealing with the loss of a loved one. 

We are social animals, and being away from other people can have a profoundly negative impact on our mental health. Replacing those real-life connections with on-screen ones is somewhat helpful, at least compared to total isolation, but increased screen time can negatively impact our sleep cycles and ability to focus. And with shifting guidance on what behaviors are acceptable, as well as nearly constant news updates on new variants and the virus’s continued spread, it can be difficult to decide what’s appropriate and when it’s “safe” to interact with others. 

Adolescents in particular, who are at a stage in life that values interpersonal connections immensely, are feeling the negative impacts of isolation and prolonged uncertainty. As a result of experiences during the pandemic, adolescents are experiencing hopelessness, sensorial deprivation, environmental restraint and irregular food intake. These immediate consequences can result in long-term issues like suicidal ideation, psychiatric disorders and problems with emotional processing. But starting the conversation is the most important part. By discussing these issues and becoming aware of them, we can begin to mitigate these mental health impacts. 

The Increased Demand for Mental Health Care Professionals 

According to a 2021 study by the American Psychological Association, numerous indicators—from increased wait lists to a “tsunami” of demand for services—show that psychologists and mental health professionals are working at or above their capacity. They’re treating stress and anxiety disorders, but they’re also seeing increased need for treating issues like sleep-wake disorders, substance misuse disorders, and obsessive-compulsive and related disorders. 

And while the explosion in telehealth offerings has made care safe and accessible for many people previously unable to either afford or easily attend therapy, some individuals benefit greatly from in-person treatment and connection. With hospitals and healthcare facilities already overrun with Covid-19 patients in addition to a “normal” amount of patients seeking treatment for health challenges of all kinds, it’s simply not feasible to treat everyone in person all of the time. 

The Transition to Smart Hospitals

As I mentioned, my family and I have spent time in mental health care settings over the pandemic. We’ve been so lucky to work with caring, compassionate professionals who, despite their exhaustion and burnout, are committed to helping those struggling with the fallout from the pandemic. That said, we’ve seen first-hand the difficulties in treating complex mental health challenges in today’s in-patient healthcare settings. Demand is simply too high for care providers to manage everything. 

The good news is, I’ve seen some reinvigorated conversations around “smart” hospitals—hospitals that optimize, redesign and/or build new clinical processes using technology. These technology-centric approaches inherently improve patient care by creating seamless and efficient interactions, safer procedures, more personalized treatment protocols and improved staff / patient safety

The pandemic is far from “over,” but there are bright spots on the horizon. It’s heartening to see the conversations around mental health and wellness finally taking center stage. By removing the stigma surrounding mental health challenges, maybe we’ll begin to create a culture that values wellness and connection more than the daily grind. And while the pandemic continues to stretch hospitals and healthcare settings to their limits, we’re seeing ways, in real time, that these settings can be improved for patient care.