Even before the coronavirus spread throughout the nations, mental health and corresponding providers were necessary components of the health system for many people all around the globe. But according to the World Health Organization, approximately two-thirds of people around the world with a mental health issue don’t use the professional treatments available, and mental illness affects nearly one out of every four people.

With that being said, there were a significant amount of people afflicted by some type of mental health illness even before all of the craziness of the pandemic arrived – and now that we’re in a time of mental health professionals being even more in need, there is now a shortage, as well as a higher cost of utilization.

We are essentially hard-wired to interact with others; we crave connection, seeing family and friends, engaging in conversation, and just being around one another in general! Even though social distancing has its benefits – one being a possible stop (this theory is in serious question from a recent published medical article) in the spread of the virus – it definitely comes with drawbacks, both mentally and socially.

With the mandates of social distancing and isolation that have been brought about by the coronavirus, the mental health of the population is now even more at risk, and even by groups that typically wouldn’t show as much of an increase in mental problems. This includes a younger adult population, those workers that are delegated as essential, ethnic groups, and even those who care for older adults that are not getting paid throughout the pandemic.

Signs and symptoms such as an increase in drugs and alcohol, increases in stress and anxiety, and an increase in suicide rates have prevailed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. According to research done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at the beginning of the summer, over 40% of people surveyed said that they were dealing with a mental health issue – and correspondingly are using different substances in order to deal with these issues in relation to the pandemic.

Oddly enough, this mandated isolation isn’t affecting just adults…. studies are finding that children are also impacted by the lack of social interaction with their peers. A survey done in China noted that one out of every five children have experienced some sort of depression, which is a much higher statistic than it was pre-pandemic.

Aside from those that are quarantined at home – both adults and children alike – there are those workers that are considered “essential”, or front-line workers. Granted, these people are still at work and interacting with others, but there has been an increase in their level of stress, anxiety, and depression as well…. especially if they are in direct contact with those that have the coronavirus. Between longer working hours, shorter staff, all the personal protection equipment rules and regulations, and the thought of possibly bringing home the virus to their family, many of these essential workers are also suffering severe mental health issues as well.

When we are social distancing from one another for a long period of time (just like we are for the coronavirus), certain health problems can also become present. Dementia and heart disease are just two of the many issues that can arise from continuous isolation, and a meta-analysis from 2015 shows us that the risk of death goes up by nearly 29% with long-term isolation. A good reason for this is due to stress, and our interactions with others. Stress will always be a present factor in our lives…. however, the body’s response to stress when someone else is present is vastly different than if one is dealing with it alone. This is especially true for the older populations, who are very much at risk during the pandemic, especially in regards to mental and social health. This can be even more compounded if they live alone, or don’t have much interaction with friends and family.

In a book called “blue zones”, researchers have studied populations throughout the world and noted why certain societies have high populations of “centenarians”, those that reach 100 years or older and typically have robust health even at such ages.  One of the most critical aspects to this amazing feat is social-connection.  Why? Well there are many reasons but we provide value through connection, our nervous systems are soothed through community and physical touch and we can share our concerns, challenges and troubles with others that have experience and ability to help us navigate those challenges.  The larger question should really be, “what is worse”? Social distancing as a strategy for prevention of the spread of disease?  Or, poor health from lack of society gathering?  Unfortunately I do not have the answer to this but as a doctor I struggle with the question constantly.

Even with all of these factors affecting different age groups, there is hope. For one, technology can play a large part in keeping people connected. Granted, it’s not a substitute for actual interaction with someone, but it can keep friends and family members in touch with one another until the social distance mandates are removed. Secondly, services that are open in order to help with chronic mental health issues can remain open and functioning until well after the pandemic has passed, so that options for help will be available to anyone who needs it even after COVID-19 is gone.

If you know someone who is struggling during the pandemic, don’t hesitate to reach out and contact them to help them feel connected. And if you yourself want to discuss more about mental health and the current pandemic, speak with your local functional medicine doctor in Boulder!

Yours truly in these difficult times,

Ian Hollaman, DC, MSc, IFMCP

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