Preexisting mental health issues + COVID-19: the combo we should have avoided

The global pandemic has brought many challenges, but few have gone as unnoticed and neglected as the deterioration of people's mental health. For mental health experts, this doesn’t come as a surprise. Research shows that in crises, mental health resources — and wellbeing resources in general — arent even close to enough.

You might think the issue only affects people already struggling with their mental health — but 10% of students have developed new mental health problems during the pandemic. Even students who described their mental health as ’stable’ before the pandemic now report symptoms of anxiety and depression.

If that's how young people without pre-existing mental health problems feel: what about people who were already struggling with psychological issues?

Sophia Bennett

COVID-19 and people with pre-existing mental health conditions

General psychological reactions to pandemics include inability to adapt, emotional distress, and defensive responses. Unsurprisingly, people who are prone to psychological problems are especially vulnerable to those reactions. Even in ’normal‘ (meaning: non-pandemic) times, people with mental illness have a lower life expectancy, as well as poorer physical health than the general population. 

An event as major and influential as the pandemic adds additional stress, triggers, and problems to their lives. It disrupts people’s day-to-day structure, tearing them away from their safety nets— which slowly leads to a (partial) destruction of their support systems and coping strategies. So for people with a history of mental health problems, the negative impact of the pandemic is far more serious. 

A study in Frontiers in psychiatry found that more than half of patients with mental health problems have experienced a worsening of their condition during the pandemic. Among women, two-thirds said their symptoms got worse, among men around half of the patients said the same. The study pointed out that the feeling of losing control, in particular, was hard on the patients, as well as the lack of social interaction. Children too need distraction and structure to cope with difficulties. The risk of children developing mental health problems increased to around 31%, compared to around 18% before the pandemic. However, worsening of the symptoms is not the only problem. 

Notably, people with pre-existing mental health problems also have an increased risk of infection from COVID-19, as well as problems accessing testing and treatment.

Sophia Bennett

What’s the solution?

Some see mental health as a niche topic, not relevant to the public — although we know this is not true. It’s estimated that around 11-18% of people have one or more mental or substance use disorders, a number that doesn’t include people without a diagnosis. The real percentage is likely much higher. 

Mental health struggles shouldn’t be treated as a side dish to the main-course problems in the world— it is the main course itself. To solve the problem we must stop overlooking it in political decisions and the distribution of funds. Mental health should be treated as what it is: a topic that concerns us all, especially if we want to keep our societies healthy and alive.  

Written by Anne Giacobello

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