The Loop

Managing Mental Health and Well-Being During COVID-19

Filed under: Benefits

As it turns out, cabin fever is a real thing. It’s not merely a casual observation related to kids building pillow forts on a rainy day, or a reference to American pioneers suffering long winters in the Old West. Some of the symptoms of so-called cabin fever include stress, restlessness, agitation and irritability, lethargy, poor concentration, persistent sadness and a sense of hopelessness, mistrust of people, poor sleep, food cravings and even weight changes. 

Some of those symptoms can lead to mental health diagnoses such as clinical depression, anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorders. People who suffered from these symptoms before the pandemic may find them exacerbated, while others who did not may have succumbed to them.

For close to a year now, Americans and people worldwide have experienced first hand what it feels like to be cooped up inside for long periods of time. Quarantining, working from home, and at-home schooling have led to social isolation, loss of income, loneliness, inactivity, decreased family and social support, limited access to basic services, and increased access to food, alcohol, and online gambling. 

In a survey conducted in April of 2020, 30 percent more adults said they were suffering from mental distress than two years prior. By August, that number rose to 41 percent among adults and 75 percent among young adults. While 2019 set a new US record at approximately 72,000 deaths due to drug overdose, that number had increased by 15 percent in just the first three quarters of 2020.

Over the past twenty years, the healthcare industry has made great strides in destigmatizing and addressing mental health care in America. However, it still had quite a way to go even before the pandemic. Now, reverberations of lockdown-induced mental health issues may have long-term impacts similar to physical health conditions caused by the coronavirus.

Domestic Distress

Mental distress is often triggered by financial stress, which for many households was brought on by COVID-19. Businesses have closed, people have lost jobs or had work hours reduced, or simply quit working out of fear of contracting the virus. These scenarios have been hampered by reduced availability of community resources and support systems that are normally available in a crisis, such as food banks and health clinics.

In homes where violence and abuse were already present, the pandemic has made many homes untenable. These circumstances can even evoke violence among families where it did not exist before. As a result, calls and texts to domestic violence hotlines have increased dramatically. But beyond physical abuse, domestic distress can have a long-term impact on mental health, causing depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance use.

If possible, the situation may be even worse for children because social interaction is so important to their growth and development. Studies show that among young children, playing with other children helps them develop strong language skills, creativity, empathy, communication, and confidence. Sustained deprivation is linked to a poor ability to adapt to change, lack of self-control and – later in life – a predilection for depression, addiction, and shallow interpersonal relationships.

While teenagers’ use of gaming and social media can help mitigate some of the negative effects of physical distancing, they too have missed out on the benefits of face-to-face engagement. For example, teens spending time with friends helps them foster a greater sense of independence and self-identity. It helps develop their ability to make their own assessments, determine right from wrong, and understand other perspectives. Obviously, sustained isolation would impede this development and could lead to a poor self-image and subsequent mental health problems. As a case in point, the share of preteens and teenagers who visited emergency departments due to mental health issues increased by more than 30 percent in 2020 compared to 2019. 

Research shows that calls for social distancing and isolation have been particularly hard on older and vulnerable demographics. In fact, many racial and ethnic disparities have been exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, healthcare workers suffer from long work hours, poor protection equipment, strain and worry about contracting the coronavirus or passing it on to loved ones. They are often stigmatized and avoided by people afraid of being infected by them. Ultimately, many in the healthcare industry suffer from depression, anxiety, PTSD, and insomnia.

Promote Employer Benefits

Now is the time for employers to be adding and promoting mental health benefits and services to their current workforce, as well resources for workers laid off due to the prolonged economic decline.


Telemedicine has proven to be exceptionally conducive for the treatment of mental health. And because regular appointments may be conducted via telemedicine, this allows mental health providers to see a greater volume of patients from the safe confines of their own homes.

While telemedicine has been long touted as a very effective means of offering mental health support, it has taken a pandemic for many providers to adopt the technology and begin offering virtual care options so patients can have direct access from home.


Another oft-overlooked resource is the Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Many of these programs offer resources to help address mental health issues. They include counseling services, online workshops, webinars, and professional support via telephonic or video options for mental health, domestic violence, and substance abuse.

Personnel Management

With many people now working from home, emerging symptoms of a mental health condition may not be as readily evident as when observed every day in the office. That’s why it is important for managers to initiate regular communications with their staff, both in group meetings and on an individual basis. They should be trained in how to detect clues of potential distress, engage in substantive conversations without making a direct report feel vulnerable or worried, and pro-actively find ways to ease conditions that lead to stress in a home-work environment.

Outlook for Mental Health Care

Fortunately, even in the wake of horrific circumstances, often a silver lining emerges. Many experts in the mental health industry see a greater focus on providing access to care and prevention resources going forward. In fact, the trend in recent years toward less stigma and encouraging people to seek mental health care is paying off. For example, Mental Health America (MHA) reported that between January and September of 2020, there was a 93 percent increase (over 2019) in the number of people who took the standard mental health anxiety screen.

It is important for the healthcare industry, lawmakers, and employers to use this momentum to advance mental health care policies. Economists predict that it may take years for a full economic recovery, and the US unemployment rate could continue to rise. Under these conditions, we can expect depression, anxiety, distress, low self-esteem and substance use disorders to rise as well, as they are highly correlated with job loss.

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