Mental Health Effects of the Pandemic


Morgan Fuerstenberg graphic

The beginning of this decade started with a life-changing pandemic, COVID-19. With over 45,107,253 cases reported in the U.S. from Jan. 3, 2020 to Oct. 25, 2021, and 730,306 deaths reported in the same period of time, it’s no surprise that there have been substantial mental health impacts amongst all generations of U.S. citizens. These data come from the World Health Organization.

The main impacts of this pandemic can be seen in the increased rates of depression and anxiety. Before discussing these impacts, however, it is important to know the definitions and symptoms of these mental illnesses.

According to the American Psychological Association, depression is defined as “a common and serious medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think and how you act.” The APA also lists the symptoms of depression as:

Feeling sad or having a depressed mood

Loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed

Changes in appetite — weight loss or gain unrelated to dieting

Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much

Loss of energy or increased fatigue

Increase in purposeless physical activity (e.g., inability to sit still, pacing, handwringing) or slowed movements or speech (these actions must be severe enough to be observable by others)

Feeling worthless or guilty

Difficulty thinking, concentrating or making decisions

Thoughts of death or suicide

The APA defines anxiety as “a normal reaction to stress” and “anticipation of a future concern and is more associated with muscle tension and avoidance behavior.” They also state that to be diagnosed with anxiety, the fear or anxiety someone experiences must “be out of proportion to the situation or age inappropriate” and/or “hinder ability to function normally.”

To try to quantify the rates of depression within adults in the U.S., the Harris Poll conducted an online survey on behalf of the APA. The surveys took place between Feb. 19 and Feb. 24, 2021 and included 3,013 U.S. adults. They titled this survey the Pandemic Anniversary Survey.

This survey found that “2 in 3 Americans (67%) said they are sleeping more or less than they wanted to since the pandemic started. Similar proportions reported less (35%) and more (31%) sleep than desired.” 

The 2020 Stress in America survey, also conducted by the Harris Poll on behalf of the APA from Aug. 4 to Aug. 26, 2020, stated that specifically adults in Generation Z “are the most likely to report experiencing common symptoms of depression, with more than 7 in 10 noting that in the past two weeks they felt so tired they sat around and did nothing (75%), felt very restless (74%), found it hard to think properly or concentrate (73%), felt lonely (73%) or felt miserable or unhappy (71%).” The survey included results from 3,409 U.S. adults and 1,026 U.S teenagers from ages 13-17.

As stated above, we can see that disruption of sleeping patterns is classified as a symptom of depression. However, these data can not be used to quantify, specifically, the rates of depression in U.S. adults.  The connection that can be seen between the COVID-19 pandemic and the survey results is quite interesting though.

Other data from the 2020 Stress in America survey looks into the stress levels of U.S. adults and teens. With their data, they found that “Nearly 8 in 10 adults (78%) say the coronavirus pandemic is a significant source of stress in their life. And, 2 in 3 adults (67%) say they have experienced increased stress over the course of the pandemic.”

More specifically, when looking at data collected from adults who are part of Generation Z, the overall stress level, using a 10-point scale, has increased. The APA reports that “Stress levels among Gen Z adults have been increasing slightly over the past two years, from 5.6 in 2018 and 5.8 in 2019 to the high of 6.1 recorded in 2020.”

Using this data, and our knowledge of the fact that a major cause of anxiety is stress, we can infer, though not conclude, that the overall rate of anxiety amongst adults in the United States is rising.

So far, the data mentioned focuses on specific symptoms, but these surveys also looked into the general mental health of U.S. adults as well. 

The Pandemic Anniversary Survey examined the generational differences and how likely people from different generations are to say that their mental health has worsened when compared to their mental health pre-pandemic. This survey found that “Gen Z adults (46%) were the most likely generation to say that their mental health has worsened compared with before the pandemic, followed by X-ers (33%), Millennials (31%), Boomers (28%) and older adults (9%).”

The 2020 Stress in America found similar results with their survey.

Overall, it seems easy to draw conclusions about the effects of the pandemic, but keep in mind that data from two surveys conducted by the same organization is not enough to definitively say how the pandemic has impacted U.S. Americans.

The CDC has a few tips for coping with disaster, which include taking care of your body, connecting with others, taking breaks and seeking professional help when you need it. You can read more about this on the CDC website by searching for a page titled “Coping with a Disaster or Traumatic Event.”

You can contact the campus Counseling Services at (608)342-1865 or [email protected].