The global pandemic comes with a heavier mental cost than we could have ever imagined.
The global coronavirus pandemic has taken the lives of 2.4 million people around the world, with at least 108 million active infections worldwide. Between new mutating variants, uncertainty surrounding vaccine delivery, vaccine effectiveness and deeply impacted economies with no end in sight, there’s another pandemic that gets less attention but is no less devastating on mental health: depression.
Barely two months into 2021, more people are speaking out about the effects of depression and recognising that something is different this time.
“I thought it was just the winter and lack of sunlight on top of stress from university, but I spoke to a therapist and she told me a lot of people are going through what I’m going through,” says a young female student, 21, who requested not to be named, in the middle of an undergraduate degree at Ibn Haldun University.
“There are days where I don’t have the energy to do anything. I feel drained, and I’m hopeless about the future. It was hard enough finding a job before covid. Looking at my friends that have graduated now doesn’t give me any confidence,” she adds.
“I asked my friends how they were coping, and it was a bit of a relief. We were all surprised to know there’s nothing wrong with us, we’re all going through the same things.”
A recent study published in PLOS ONE reports that one in three adults are victims of covid-related depression and anxiety, with young women, young adults and economically burdened individuals significantly more at risk.
The study reports that social distancing, isolation, lockdown and the absence of a visible end to the pandemic are impacting people’s mental health adversely, causing insomnia, anxiety, stress, and depression.
Unfortunately, that has a very real effect on the body. For young children, prolonged exposure to stress can seriously impact the development of the amygdala and hippocampus, responsible for emotion management, learning and memory, while also making it more likely they’ll suffer from mental health complications when they get older.
A recent survey of children in Germany found that 4 out of 5 children are suffering from pandemic related anxiety, going so far as to make its way felt in the way of headaches and stomach aches. The survey found that children with migrant origins or from poorer backgrounds struggled more, as they ate less healthy meals, increased screen time, or had to deal with stressed family members who fought more at home.
For adults, stress can cause inflammation, lower immune system strength, and raise cortisol levels in the body which can cause weight gain, acne breakouts, impaired healing, muscle weakness, high blood pressure and difficulty concentrating.
Because it’s such a new field, studies are only beginning to emerge detailing the devastating effects the pandemic is having on us. For others, it’s made worse by social media.
“I try to focus on school and try to be positive, but it’s hard when you go on Instagram and all these reels show people either making money from home or having a fun time,” says Mohammed, an 18-year old high school student.
“You feel pressured into pretending you’re alright, which is fine, but I don’t think anyone’s alright,” he adds.
Scientists are still not certain why adults aged 35 or under seem to be experiencing the brunt of Covid-19’s mental toll, although they suspect it may have to do with their media consumption habits. For many stuck at home who watch TV as an escape under lockdown, few are likely aware that the same PLOS One study reports that consuming more media actually increases the risk of anxiety and depression.
For others, this depression can have real-life implications. In an online survey carried out by New York University, alcohol and drug use among young people is reportedly increasing, as youth resort to the substances as a coping mechanism.
The lead researcher, Ariadna Capasso, a PhD candidate says the pandemic could be triggering an epidemic of substance abuse. These findings seem to be supported by a broad study carried out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which analysed more than 180 million emergency room visits from December 30 2018 to Oct 10 2020, reporting that 2020 saw 45% more drug overdoses.
This growing wave of depression and anxiety is by no means limited to the young however. One health group warns that the elderly are actually more at risk, faced with the fact that they account for most Covid-19 related deaths. This is only worsened for elders living alone or in isolation from their loved ones.
Equally impacted are vital frontline healthcare workers battling the virus in overtaxed hospitals around the world. In addition to sharing everyone else’s stresses, they also have to contend with exhaustion, fear of infection or infecting loved ones, the death of colleagues, and having to deal with the loss of their patients. Coupled with long shifts, and low pay, this can be a quick recipe to anxiety and depression.
According to The Lancet medical journal, well before the pandemic, health care providers were already vulnerable to post traumatic stress disorder, burnout, insomnia and depression. The pandemic has only made that worse.