COVID-19 creates unique mental health challenges

NOTE: I am not a mental health professional. The perspective shared below is entirely my own and is not intended to be authoritative. My goal in writing this is to reflect on one small aspect of what the world is currently experiencing.

The turmoil caused by COVID-19 confronts us with a unique set of mental health challenges.

Lately, I’ve noticed an uptick in news stories exploring how the pandemic affects people with anxiety disorders (panic disorder, phobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder [OCD], etc.); trauma-related conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder; eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia, etc.); and those who are either in recovery or struggling with an active addiction to alcohol or drugs. These subjects hit home for me, as I’m sure they do for many.

Mental health is public health, and we are in a public and mental health crisis.

It’s important to share, without fear, the impact of stress and discord on people both with and without an underlying mental health diagnosis. I think about one of my oldest friends, a lifelong addict who spent the last few years getting sober and rebuilding her career, as well as countless relationships. I wonder if she has what she needs to stay sober right now? It dawned on me that traditional twelve-step groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA), have had to abruptly disband and pivot to a virtual recovery approach—as if the general state of affairs isn’t enough to compel the average Joe to reach for something to take the edge off.

Unlike my friend, who stays sober by abstaining from drugs or alcohol, someone in recovery from anorexia or bulimia cannot simply abstain from food; he or she must confront daily the “problem” of eating, creating a challenging path to recovery, now compounded by a global pandemic that limits access to in-person therapy and outpatient care. Anorexia, the avoidance of and refusal to eat food, has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, and can be especially dangerous during a time when we are asked to self-isolate and limit face-to-face contact. For someone with bulimia, a particularly insidious disease of bingeing and purging, the current frenzy of stockpiling and rationing food is likely to exacerbate existing binge-purge patterns.

For those with phobias, OCD or panic disorder, COVID-19 is simply adding new fuel to a pre-existing fire. Even for those without a clinical diagnosis, these are anxious times. I had my first coronavirus-related panic attack last Saturday: I half-woke up, reeling from a nightmare in which I was stranded and alone in Reagan National Airport. My chest was heavy and tight. I was hot—flushed, covered in sweat, definitely feverish. And then I was convinced, in the same way I’m sure many others have been: I have the coronavirus. I shoved a thermometer in my mouth, jumped into a cold shower, and started packing a hospital bag in my head. Three minutes later, as I was furiously brushing my teeth (who knows the next time I’ll get to use a toothbrush?), I caught my eyes in the mirror and thought: Maybe this is a panic attack.

So, what is being done to address this mental health crisis? Many mental health providers have switched to virtual or phone-based counseling platforms. The National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) have released toolkits on staying sane, healthy and sober during the COVID-19 outbreak. Wuhan opened a mental health hotline to help people under quarantine. New York, which has nearly 60,000 cases as of March 29, recently enlisted the help of 6,000 volunteers to launch a COVID-19 mental health hotline for its residents. Empower Work reported a 197 percent increase in calls from low-income workers and working single parents. Even Food Wine Magazine just posted a sobriety resource guide for hospitality and restaurant workers.

The COVID-19 outbreak is upending every aspect of our lives. We are shuttering businesses and livelihoods. We are losing loved ones.

Essential workers risk their lives to pick up our garbage and stock our shelves; a huge swath of our fellow citizens have been laid off; others navigate what working from home looks like, in many cases along with homeschooling, in an increasingly apocalyptic atmosphere. And, as with most disasters, poverty, systemic inequalities, and stigma compound trauma. We must practice patience, understanding, and grace as part of our collective obligation to reduce mental health stigma. Don’t be afraid to talk about things that are uncomfortable. Don’t think your problem isn’t deserving of airtime. Mental health is public health, and we are all in this together.


The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones. Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255).