The “Second Pandemic” of Mental Health: What Doctors Want You to Know

Doctor William C Lloyd Healthgrades Medical Reviewer
Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Written By Karon Warren on January 22, 2021
  • Two senior Caucasian women looking sad and comforting each other
    The prevalence of mental health disorders is greater after the pandemic.
    Several studies have shown the prevalence of mental health disorders like anxiety and depression is greater after the pandemic than before it—some even calling it the “second pandemic” of 2020. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, during late June 2020, 31% of U.S. adults reported struggling with anxiety and/or depression symptoms, and 26% struggled with trauma or stress-related disorder symptoms. Get advice and other helpful information from mental health experts, including warning signs of a problem and what to do if you or a loved one is struggling.
  • thoughtful woman sitting on couch
    1. “Evaluate your mental health for warning signs.”
    If you’re concerned about your mental health, Dr. Claudia Luiz, psychoanalyst and faculty member with the Academy for Clinical and Applied Psychoanalysis in Livingston, N.J., suggests rating your ability to think into the future. Do you think what’s happening is temporary? Do you fantasize about life after the pandemic? “If you have a sense of your life as being ‘pandemic hero’ in nature, that is your foundation for gauging that your depression, anxiety or agitation is temporary,” she says. If you don’t think things will be better in the future, you are in danger of experiencing an escalation in mental health symptoms that could put you in crisis, she says.
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    2. “There are numerous warning signs to indicate someone is struggling.”
    To determine if you or someone you love is struggling, look for the following warning signs: a change in mood or behavior that negatively impacts relationships, work life, or education; changes in appetite or activity level; difficulty sleeping or waking up often or earlier than usual; social withdrawal or dependency; diminished concentration or motivation; or acting “off” or unlike yourself. “A diagnosis of major depressive disorder, or clinical depression, requires that symptoms be present for at least two weeks,” says Dr. Chloe Greenbaum, PhD, an adjunct professor with New York University in New York.
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    3. “Control what you can to meet your personal needs.”
    With so many things out of our control during the COVID pandemic, it can leave us on unsure footing. Therefore, Dr. Wilfred Van Gorp, PhD, director of Cognitive Assessment Group in New York and Chicago, says to take control of those elements you can. “One key to caring for our own mental health during the pandemic is to try to identify aspects of our situation we can control, and take charge of what we can so that our needs are taken care of,” he says. “It is important to reach and work toward goals to help fight off depression and anxiety.”
  • unidentifiable woman indoors relaxing, meditating and doing breathing exercises
    4. “Find ways to actively calm your nervous system.”
    The pandemic has created uniquely stressful circumstances that sends us into “fight or flight” mode by activating our sympathetic nervous system, says Grace Dowd, LCSW, owner and psychotherapist at Grace Dowd Psychotherapy PLLC in Austin, Texas. “We can bring our nervous system back to a more balanced place by increasing activities that activate the parasympathetic ‘rest and digest’ part of our nervous system.” These activities include meditation, deep breathing, yoga, and mindfulness practice. “I recommend engaging in one of these activities on a daily basis and increasing or decreasing frequency as needed,” Dowd says.
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    5. “Pay attention to increased substance abuse.”
    Throughout the pandemic, there has been a notable increase in alcohol sales, as well as increased use of marijuana, opiates and stimulants. “Often, these are being used to self-medicate, numb the mental distress or curb boredom,” says Dr. Jasleen Chhatwal, chief medical officer for Sierra Tucson in Tucson, Ariz. “However, they end up worsening both mental and physical health issues in the long run, impacting not only the individual but also their families.” Therefore, it’s important to pay attention to increased substance abuse. If you acknowledge a problem with yourself or a loved one, seek support and treatment to avoid a potential crisis.
  • One healthcare worker tired after a tough shift wearing a face mask.
    6. “First responders and healthcare workers need time to let go of stress.”
    The COVID pandemic has taken quite a toll on first responders and healthcare workers who continue to work long hours under difficult circumstances. While they often can compartmentalize at work to keep stress and anxiety at bay, those emotions can catch up with them at home. “One of my biggest suggestions is to schedule a recovery time and activity after their shift but before they go home,” says Alisha Sweyd, LMFT, co-founder of Code 3 Counseling in Pacific Grove, Calif. This time could include practicing mindfulness or meditation, playing games on your phone, or exercising.
  • Mother comforting teenage daughter with serious or concerned look
    7. “Teens have been particularly hit hard with the pandemic.”
    The teen years are always challenging, but COVID depression of the pandemic has added to the challenge. Jason Drake, LCSW-S, owner and lead clinician at Katy Teen and Family Counseling PLLC in Katy, Texas, recommends checking in with your teen to ask how they are doing. In doing so, listen to them without judgment and with empathy. “There is a time to help problem solve and a time to simply listen with empathy,” Drake says. “Listening with empathy and not trying to solve the problem in the moment can be a powerful tool to help your teen feel supported.”
  • Couple at home watching television together on sofa
    8. “Limit exposure to the news and social media.”
    Not surprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to dominate the news and social media posts. To improve your mental health, it’s important to limit your exposure to these outlets. “Being informed is one thing,” says Dr. Vinay Saranga, MD, founder of Saranga Comprehensive Psychiatry in Apex, N.C. “Over-consumption is something entirely different and can lead to increased stress and mental health problems. Limit your exposure to the news and social media, and when you feel your stress rising, simply turn it off.”
  • Young male patient looking sad or stressed talking to doctor
    9. “Don’t be afraid to seek professional help.”
    Checking in with loved ones and having conversations about mental well-being can be helpful in avoiding potential crises. Sometimes, though, that may not be enough. “There can come a time when the support provided by you or the family is not enough, and professional support or intervention becomes essential,” Dr. Chhatwal says. “Typically, a primary care doctor or your insurance carrier can be a good starting point for a mental health referral. In the case of emergency, however, going directly to a local crisis center, emergency room or calling emergency services is important.”
The “Second Pandemic” of Mental Health: What Doctors Want You to Know
  • Dr. Chloe Greenbaum, PhD is an adjunct professor, New York University in New York
  • Wilfred Van Gorp, PhD is Director, Cognitive Assessment Group in New York and Chicago
  • Grace Dowd is a licensed clinical social worker, owner and psychotherapist, Grace Dowd Psychotherapy PLLC in Austin, Texas
  • Dr. Jasleen Chhatwal is Chief Medical Officer, Sierra Tucson in Tucson, Ariz.
  • Alisha Sweyd is a licensed marriage and family therapist and co-founder, Code 3 Counseling in Pacific Grove, Calif.
  • Jason Drake is a licensed clinical social worker-supervisor, owner and lead clinician Katy Teen and Family Counseling PLLC in Katy, Texas
  • Dr. Vinay Saranga founded Saranga Comprehensive Psychiatry in Apex, N.C.
  1. Mental Health, Substance Use and Suicidal Ideation During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, June 24-30, 2020. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 21
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.