Like most Americans, Jenny Korn, a Research Affiliate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, is doing her best to adjust to the “new normal.” Sheltered in place in Chicago, she is living, working, eating and sleeping at home, communicating remotely with her team in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“I used to understand what ‘okay’ meant,” Korn says, “but now, I’m not so sure. Everything feels so unsafe and in flux. I feel every day is a battle between working hard and hardly working.”
At the end of the day, Korn admits, “Life is abnormal, and I feel subpar.”
In addition to her not-so-normal life, Korn also worries about her aging parents, who live too far to visit, and the anti-Asian racism that is spreading alongside the Covid-19 pandemic.
“As an Asian woman, I have been more vigilant about going out in public because I know anti-Asian sentiment and racism are real,” says Korn, “so I worry more now about my physical safety.
While Covid-19 continues to wreak havoc on our bodies and health care system, a new poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, published on April 2, shows the psychological toll the pandemic is taking on many Americans.
According to the survey, 45 percent of adults (53% of women and 37% of men) say the pandemic has affected their mental health, and 19 percent say it has had a “major impact.” The rates are slightly higher among women, Hispanic adults and black adults.
“What we’re really seeing is a global experience of anxiety, and how that’s impacting our day-to-day lives,” explains Kelli Finley, Executive Director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) in Marin County, just north of San Francisco.
With nearly a third of the world’s population on some form of coronavirus lockdown, lengthy periods of isolation and “social distancing” are leading to increased feelings of anxiety, depression and stress. For some people, the anxiety comes from a fear of getting sick or having their loved ones become ill. For others, it’s the economic downturn and fear of unemployment, or having already lost a job. For many, it’s the uncertainty of how long this unusual, isolated lifestyle will continue.
Some states are already mobilizing to meet the needs of this growing mental health crisis. In New York, the state hardest-hit by coronavirus, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a free mental health hotline, staffed by 6,000 volunteers, during his press conference on March 25. Cuomo also announced that the state of New York is partnering with the popular meditation app, Headspace, to offer free mindfulness content for all New Yorkers.
In a recorded announcement, Headspace co-founder Andy Puddicombe advised people to not ignore their mental health during these “uncertain times”:
“It’s difficult to even know where to begin to address the extraordinary stress, anxiety and trauma that individuals and communities are experiencing,” Puddicombe said. “Now more than ever, it’s essential to look after our physical and mental health, both for our own benefit, and for those around us.”
According to Finley, NAMI is scaling up its network of free resources and essential services across the nation, including a Crisis Text Line (text “HELLO” to 741741), a Disaster Distress Helpline (call 1-800-985-5990 or text “TalkWithUs” to 66746) and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (call 1-800-273-TALK).
“If you don’t have somebody in your personal network to talk to, now is the time to try the Crisis Text Line, or the Suicide Prevention Line,” she says. “You don’t have to feel suicidal to call. They’re there to talk and walk this through with you.”
While getting through the pandemic is challenging, Finley warns that the real psychological effects of the crisis may not show up in people until after the pandemic has subsided.
“Mental health issues often appear after the crisis, not during,” she explains, pointing to the 2019 wildfires in Sonoma County, California that burned 77,000 acres, caused widespread evacuations, and cut off power to more than a million Californians.
“During the fires, people rallied to man the shelters, gather blankets, and perform other specific tasks to get through the crisis,” she says. “It’s when people got back to their normal lives that we saw an increase in mental health issues and even PTSD.”
She expects that first-line responders, elderly people and teens, who are experiencing rising levels of anxiety and depression, will be most impacted by a post-traumatic stress response to the pandemic.