Mental health collapsed in 2020. Recovery could take years
The pandemic has aggrieved mental health in three main ways. First, people experience anxiety around catching the virus themselves, or unknowingly carrying it and infecting others. Second, the social isolation caused by lockdowns leaves them lonely and desolate. James experienced both, but was spared from the other main hit: severe financial pressure. Employment is closely tied to wellbeing. One study of recessions and mental health showed that suicides in the US increased by 1% for every 1% rise in unemployment.
Different nations have shouldered these burdens in different ways. Japan has seen an alarming spate of suicides, particularly among women. Over 2,150 Japanese died by suicide in October, more than had died from COVID-19 by that point, leading to the creation of a minister for loneliness in the country. Suicide has not accelerated appreciably in most other countries, but other signs of despair have. Drug overdoses in the US spiked sharply, thanks mostly to rising opioid abuse, according to CDC data. Over 52,000 died by overdosing synthetic opioids between August 2019 and August 2020, the highest on record, with especially high numbers seen in the months following lockdown. When overdose deaths from the calendar year of 2020 are compiled, it's likely to be the worst on record.
There is some reason for optimism. As more people get vaccinated, economies recover and the prospect of post-COVID life becomes more tangible, some mental health metrics are improving. But we're not on the other side just yet. More precipitous falls in mental health have been avoided thanks to financial safety nets, like historic stimulus packages under both the Trump and Biden administrations. But Biden hasn't committed to a fourth stimulus package, and many more impromptu welfare systems, like the UK's furloughs scheme, will be removed by the end of the year.
And while available data shows escalated emotional suffering in populations around the world, the true mental and emotional fallout from COVID-19 is likely to play out over years -- or even decades.