The Pandemic Mental Health Crisis: New Numbers Paint a Dire Picture

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Mental Health America (MHA) Screening Program, which provides free, anonymous mental health screens, shows roughly 18,000 more people sought help for anxiety or depression since pandemic began; nearly 14,000 considered suicide or self-harm in March and April.

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"It is clear the mental effects are impacting people now – and will linger for those who mourn loved ones and for those whose anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and other serious conditions are left untreated."

At least 10,193 people experienced moderate to severe depression and at least 7,629 people screened moderate to severe for anxiety from late February through the end of April as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to new data released by Mental Health America (MHA) today.

This is the strongest, most direct, real-time measure of the deep impact the pandemic is having on the mental health of the nation.

MHA has had an online screening program since 2014. People who come to the website can screen anonymously and for free, using the same evidence-based mental health screening tools that are used by most clinicians. Nearly five million people have taken a mental health screen in the last 5 years. More than 300,000 took an anxiety screening in 2018 and 2019 alone. Most people who take a screen have never been diagnosed with a mental health condition.

MHA’s screening numbers have been growing since the start of the pandemic. MHA has seen a 70 percent increase in the number of people taking an anxiety (GAD-7) screen and a 64 percent increase in the number of people taking a depression (PHQ-9) screen between January and April.

These 17,822 people who are newly “positive” for anxiety and depression since the beginning of the pandemic represent the tip of an iceberg.

They include only those who sought help through MHA’s online mental health screening program at http://www.mhascreening.org. While MHA’s program is the most widely used early detection program in the nation, only a small number of those experiencing mental health problems – roughly one million people each year – use it to assess their mental health needs. That means the nationwide numbers of those dealing with anxiety and depression symptoms are likely much, much worse.

“The virus will likely ebb in time, and we hope that physically things will be back to normal soon,” said Paul Gionfriddo, president and CEO of Mental Health America. “But it is clear the mental effects are impacting people now – and will linger for those who mourn loved ones and for those whose anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and other serious conditions are left untreated. We will pay a price if we don’t take all of this seriously from the start."

Additionally, a deeper concern is that in March and April, both the percentages and numbers of screeners who reported thinking of suicide or self-harm on more than half the days also increased in the overall depression screening program.

-Thirty percent of depression screeners reported having these thoughts in January, and this grew to 35 percent in March before leveling off at 32.5 percent in April.
-4,205 people reported regular thoughts of suicide or self-harm in January.
-While this number alone is alarming, it grew to 4,537 in February and to 5,871 in March. With more people screening in April, the number increased to 7,061 – a 68 percent increase over January.

MHA is reporting these results just a week after the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute (MMHPI) in Dallas, TX estimated that the economic impact of the pandemic alone could result in early 4,000 additional annual deaths by suicide due to unemployment.

MHA is alarmed about that, but those deaths could also be just the beginning. Between April 13 and April 30, MHA surveyed 8,989 individuals who screened at moderate to severe for depression and 5,525 who screened at moderate to severe for anxiety and asked them to name their top three concerns leading to their mental health problems “right now.”

Among depression screeners:
-Seventy-two percent chose “loneliness and isolation.”
-Thirty-two percent chose COVID-19.
-Twenty-four percent citied financial problems.

Among anxiety screeners:
-Sixty percent cited loneliness and isolation.
-Forty-five percent cited COVID-19.
-Twenty-six percent attributed their anxiety to financial problems.

MHA is offering free resources to people affected by COVID-19 on its COVID-19 resource page, through its Mental Health Month toolkit, and through its Screening-to-Supports program. But it’s not enough. We need our federal government to prioritize taking care of both the physical ramifications of this disease – but also the mental impacts facing every single person.

In real time we can see that our mental health is being damaged, our needs are growing, and past stimulus legislation – even with $25 million dedicated to suicide prevention – has not done enough to help.

That may be a tough message to get across when public health officials are focusing on protecting us from disease and public officials are focused on getting the economy restarted, but we need to get it across. The mental health needs of all Americans run deeper than they think.

Mental Health America (MHA) - founded in 1909 - is the nation’s leading community-based nonprofit dedicated to addressing the needs of those living with mental illness and to promoting the overall mental health of all Americans. Our work is driven by our commitment to promote mental health as a critical part of overall wellness, including prevention services for all; early identification and intervention for those at risk; integrated care, services, and supports for those who need it; with recovery as the goal.

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Erin Wallace
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