Is the Pandemic Making Americans Mentally Sick?

This week, AM analysts are tracking the devasting long-term effects of the pandemic on mental health. In recent weeks, as more Americans receive the COVID-19 vaccines and infection rates decline, mental health cases continue to rise. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that during August 2020–February 2021, a little over 40% of U.S. adults had anxiety or depressive disorder compared with 36.4 percent in August – and those needing care but not receiving it also increased from 9.2 % to 11.7%. The numbers are even more staggering for people who have contracted COVID-19. A recent study in The Lancet Psychiatry states that “one in three patients with COVID-19 are diagnosed with a psychiatric or neurological condition within six months,” solidifying the need for access to treatment and vaccine uptake. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic began and lockdowns increased, mental health experts warned that isolation, lack of human connection, and mounting fear and anxiety could lead to an increase in mental illness diagnoses, substance use, and higher rates of suicidal thoughts and attempts. Their predictions were accurate. Data suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively affected the psychological well-being of many Americans. A recent survey reported by The New York Times revealed that nearly 75% of 13- to 19-year-olds struggled with their mental health as the pandemic intensified and entire communities were told to completely isolate themselves from their family and friends. Stay-at-home orders lead to a new way of conducting work, business, school, and events, leading to very limited in-person interactions and growing trends of depression and suicide rates among teens. The CDC reported that during 2020, the proportion of mental health-related emergency department (ED) visits among adolescents aged 12–17 years increased 31% compared with 2019. Even more alarming, during February 21–March 20, 2021, emergency-room visits for suspected suicide attempts by teenage girls were close to 51% higher during the same period in 2019 and 3.7% higher among boys in the same age group.

There is no surprise that the lack of human contact, a primal need, has perpetuated feelings of loneliness for many within the population. Research conducted by Kaiser Family Foundation found an increase in the average share of adults reporting symptoms of anxiety disorder and/or depressive disorder from 11% in January-June of 2019 to 41.1% in January 2021. Teens and older adults are not alone. In fact, young adults, aged 18-24, also reported increased rates of mental illness, including 56% reporting symptoms of anxiety and/or depressive disorder, 25% reporting substance use, and 26% reporting suicidal thoughts. This is a contrast to lower rates seen before the pandemic, with 13% reporting substance use and a little over 10% reporting suicidal thoughts.

Increased rates of anxiety and depression are not the sole concerns of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are also concerns over increased rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance misuse, trouble coping, stress, and potentially survivor’s guilt. For example, CDC research from June 2020 showed that 13% of adults reported that they were new drug users or had increased their substance use due to the stress of the pandemic. Despite these findings, public health experts believe that the actual rates of substance use are much higher than the reported value as individuals can feel reluctant to admit their use. 

Suicidal thoughts and attempts are of concern when evaluating the impacts of mental health, especially in severe cases. The United States is one of the wealthiest countries in the globe and spends more on health compared to the majority of other wealthy countries; however, they have one of the highest suicide rates globally. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these incidences.

These devastating findings highlight the growing rate of depression and suicide attempts due to COVID-19 and as the pandemic enters year two, the mental health burden becomes clearer. Without intervention and support, the U.S. is ill-equipped to handle the growing burden of mental health disorders, substance use, and suicide thoughts the pandemic is placing on the health and safety of Americans. COVID-19-related mental disorders will continue to worsen unless they are addressed. The country is at a pivotal point to take advantage of the information available and use it to address and manage the mental health challenges that U.S. citizens are facing. Congress is standing up to the challenge. Just this week, bipartisan lawmakers called for legislative action to help tackle substance use disorders and mental health needs coming out of the coronavirus pandemic. In addition to congressional support and actions, health departments need to continue to provide the public with accessible resources to doctors and psychologists and coping mechanisms to deal with anxiety, depression, and stress. CDC provides the following healthy methods to cope with stress: 

  • taking care of your body, 
  • making time to unwind, 
  • connecting with others, and 
  • connecting with the community.

Additionally resources to manage stress and depression can be found on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website. 


AM TRACE is currently working nationwide with multiple states and public health agencies on testing, contact tracing, and vaccination programs. Counties, states, or K-12 partners that are interested in partnering with AM TRACE for COVID-19 mitigation support should contact Dr. Christopher K Orlea at

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