Experts warned of psychological fallout; reports told of an increase in anxiety and depressive disorders. Social distancing restrictions have eased since then, or evaporated altogether. But the pandemic still rages, protesters take to the street most every night in major cities, and Americans’ fears about the integrity of the impending election continue to swell. We feel unsafe, adrift, and burned out. People want to know: Will we be OK?
Surely Dr. Joshua A. Gordon, director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), has an answer. Dr. Gordon leads the largest federal agency for research on mental disorders and has been scrutinizing emerging data about the pandemic’s effects on Americans’ psychological well-being.
Though he’s a researcher and not a clinician, Dr. Gordon has the measured affability of a therapist. He speaks slowly in long, thoughtful sentences. He even hand-sewed his own face masks with fabric blazed with the pattern of a brain.
But when The Daily Beast asked him the simple question—did COVID launch America into a mental health crisis? —Dr. Gordon paused. “That’s a really tough question to answer, even six months in,” he said. He cannot give a direct “yes or no,” but he can say, “maybe or maybe not.”
“A lot of well-done surveys indicate that the rates of people who are endorsing symptoms of mental illness have gone up,” Dr. Gordon added. “We’re seeing [rates] go up anywhere from two to four times where they are from baseline, depending on the age group. We’re seeing people note high rates of symptoms of depression, anxiety, grief, and even high rates of suicidal thoughts in some subgroups. It’s particularly disturbing to see in young people.”
According to a study by the CDC, 40 percent of adults in this country reported they struggled with mental health or substance abuse. Ten percent of those surveyed said their symptoms were due to stress caused by the pandemic. Anxiety symptoms were up around three times than those reported in the second quarter of 2019; occurrences of depressive disorder jumped four times since the same period.
Dr. Gordon said, “I have no doubt that there are some people who have a diagnosable mental illness—depression, anxiety disorder, post traumatic stress disorder—as a result of COVID. That happens after any emergency. “The question is how many people [will have lasting mental health effects], and is it going to be dramatically higher than similar events since COVID has lasted longer? It’s frustrating that we don’t know the impact six months in.” (Health-care workers with frontline experienceare most at risk for PTSD, said Dr. Gordon.)
As Dr. Ronald W. Pies wrote last month in Psychiatric Times, people might be experiencing symptoms of mental illness, but most of them have yet to be diagnosed with anything. It is premature to make any call about how widespread these problems are—unfortunately, all we can do now is wait and see.
When the pandemic began, one of Donald Trump’s motivations for rushing the reopening of states was the threat of what he called “suicide by thousands.” As he put it on Fox News back in April: “You’re going to lose more people by putting a country into a massive recession or depression.”
Dr. Gordon said that there is no way to measure the rate of suicide in America for 2020; it usually takes one or two years to compile that statistic. “I can’t tell you if deaths [by suicide] are increasing during COVID,” he said.
“But we know, depending on what statistic you read, that there are now 200,000 Americans who have died of COVID in the last seven months,” Dr. Gordon went on. “With no increase due to COVID, we lose 48,000 people a year to suicide. The most extreme estimates guess that we’ll see a rate of suicide increase by 10 percent in the United States. In my mind, that’s unlikely, but I don’t know.
“So, I just told you that 48,000 people die of suicide a year. Ten percent of that is another 4,800 lives. Now, 4,800 more lives lost to suicide is tragic, and we should do everything to make sure that doesn’t happen. But 4,800 lives compared to the 200,000 dead compared to COVID—the math doesn’t work to argue that we should reopen to prevent suicides.”
Dr. Gordon would not comment on whether or not he thinks Trump helps or hurts the mental health of America. (He did say that the administration has been “very supportive” of his department’s study on the pandemic’s psychological impact.)
But he did say that some of the most “challenging” moments of the pandemic have been witnessing the public’s disregard for social distancing and mask-wearing mandates.
“I think it’s concerning when you read about the degree to which our science might be misinterpreted by particular political movements,” Dr. Gordon said. “I don’t want to overstep the boundaries of my position, but it’s very frustrating that people think masking and other public health measures are somehow a political question or express something about one’s beliefs or freedoms.”
He also worries for those who are in care-taking positions at home watching over elderly or at-risk relatives. “When you look specifically at that demographic, their rates of anxiety and depressed mood increase as the length of time goes on,” he said, referring to a CDC sample study. “That was for people caring for adults. One can imagine that parents of children might be impacted in the same way.”
This summer, after staying home for two weeks and receiving a negative COVID test, Dr. Gordon and his wife went on their annual trip upstate with two other couples. They rented an Airbnb and got takeout instead of going out for dinner. When they arrived at the home, they took deep breaths before exchanging hugs for the first time since February.
“It was like, ‘Are we really going to do this?’ It was awkward. But within that 48-hour weekend, it became normal very quickly. For the vast majority of people, that’s going to be the case.”