Mental Health During a Global Pandemic

Mental Health During a Global Pandemic

June 24, 2022PAO-06-022--NI-03

With more and more countries lifting their COVID restrictions and trying to return to a version of normal similar to what existed before a series of lockdowns, we want to explore a topic that is not being talked about enough even two years after the start of COVID-19: the overall state and impact of the pandemic on mental health.

The Effect of COVID-19 on Mental Health

We all have it. We all need to take care of it. And it has been particularly affected during the pandemic: mental health. The disruptions and uncertainty caused by COVID-19 have left many people wondering what will be next. While some have lost loved ones, others lost their jobs and livelihood. Many young students were forced to stay home from school, unable to see their friends and feeling isolated and alone.

Before we dive deeper into the topic, it is important to provide a clear understanding about what constitutes mental health. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”1 It is the foundation for emotions, thinking, communication, learning, resilience, and self-esteem. Mental health is also key to relationships, personal and emotional well-being, and contributing to community or society.2 When challenged, mental health can turn into a mental illness. This occurs whenever there’s a substantial change in one’s emotions, thinking, or behavior.3

The biggest global challenge of the last two years has been the COVID-19 pandemic. From one day to the other, lives changed, and nothing was the same as before. Constraints on people’s ability to work, seek support from loved ones, and engage with their communities took a toll and it became very apparent: this situation went far beyond the “normal stresses of life.”1 That is why the struggle for anyone with mental health issues, and subsequently mental illness, has only gotten worse throughout multiple lockdowns over the last 24 months.

On March 2, 2022, the WHO released a previously conducted study that showed a 25% increase in the prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide over just the first year of the pandemic.4 This may seem unexpectedly high, but the reality is that this increase is by no means a surprise. While overall mental health has significantly deteriorated over the last years in general, prior research on disasters and epidemics already suggested that “in the immediate wake of a traumatic experience, large numbers of affected people report distress, including new or worsening symptoms of depression, anxiety, and insomnia.”5 And while everyone is ready to leave the pandemic behind and return to normalcy, when looking at the numbers more closely, one question remains: why was there not more psychological support for people during the pandemic, when previous research on epidemics showed a clear increase in prevalence anxiety and depression? “What if the next global crisis is a mental health pandemic?”6

We are Living Through the Next Big Global Health Crisis

There has been a clear and undeniable increase in mental disorders before but also especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. The WHO study revealed a 25% increase in prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide over just the first year of the pandemic, a number that unquestionably rose across the second year.4 In July 2020, 53% of U.S. adults said that the worry and stress about the isolation and uncertainty caused by the virus was beginning to have a negative effect on their mental health.7 Additionally, the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) released data in February 2021 showing that about four out of 10 adults in the United States reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, compared with one out of 10 only a few months before social distancing rules came into effect.8

Official statistics and numbers have confirmed the many deaths that have directly resulted from COVID-19 itself. Mental health issues and mental illness, however, have also taken a large toll on people before, during, and after the pandemic. While the acknowledgement and understanding of mental illnesses has increased over the last decade, far too many people still suffer from it every day. It is no surprise that depression is one of the leading causes of disability, while suicide is the second-leading cause of death for 15- to 34-year-olds worldwide.9 People who suffer from depression have a 40% higher risk of developing cardiovascular and metabolic diseases than the general population, and those with serious mental illness are nearly twice as likely to develop these conditions. Additionally, over 32% of U.S. adults with mental illnesses experienced substance abuse disorders in 2020.1

These data show an alarming trend that has only been accelerated due to the uncertainty and constraints put on everyone during COVID-19: overall mental health is deteriorating, and it is deteriorating rapidly.

Provide Access and Erase the Stigma

This reality has been recognized by health organizations across the world. In 2013, the WHO pledged to provide countries and governments with a comprehensive action plan to combat mental illnesses and improve mental health worldwide. This includes “more effective leadership and governance for mental health; the provision of comprehensive, integrated mental health and social care services in community-based settings; implementation of strategies for promotion and prevention; and strengthened information systems, evidence and research.”11 While this is a good start, a lot remains to be done. Governments should adhere to the implementation of these four major objectives, rather than using them as loose guidelines and thereby further delaying prevention and awareness, research, and treatment of mental health and mental illnesses. There needs to be easier access to information and a normalization of the topic –– this is apparent when looking at the stigmatization that still surrounds mental illness. The American Psychiatric Association reports that more than half of people in the U.S. with mental illnesses choose not to receive professional help or treatment out of fear that they could be treated differently by loved ones and friends or lose their jobs or their livelihood.12 Furthermore, those who do seek help are not always able to find it in a timely manner. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) states that, in 2020, almost 18 million people in the United States who tried to seek professional help experienced delays or even cancellations in appointments. Over seven million people experienced delays in getting needed prescriptions, and almost five million were unable to even gain access to the psychiatric care they needed to get better.10

Speak Up and Listen

The lack of available and timely professional help and the stigmatization of the topic are unacceptable and pressing issues that need to be addressed sooner rather than later. The pandemic should have proven even to the biggest doubters that mental health is the foundation to a fulfilled and happy life. And while more and easier access to therapy is something politicians and governments are best positioned to provide, getting rid of the stigma is everybody’s responsibility. The best way to do that is to talk to someone who is suffering from a mental illness. Even though it is not always easy, individuals who are suffering should also speak out and share their stories, which can lead to a positive impact. Normalizing treatment, talking openly about it, and meeting ignorant people with compassion rather than anger can lead to a change in the way a lot of people view mental health. As alluded to before, mental health is the foundation for everything in life: emotions, thinking, communication, learning, resilience, and self-esteem. It is the key to relationships, personal and emotional well-being, and contributing to community or society.2 We are living through the next global health crisis. It is important to get ahead of it and stop it in its tracks. We cannot neglect something so important, because at the end of the day, it is all we have. We all need to take care of it. So, let’s do it together.



  1. Mental health: strengthening our response.” World Health Organization. 30 Mar. 2018.
  2. What is Mental Illness?” American Psychiatric Association. Aug. 2018.
  3. Mental illness.” Mayo Clinic. 8 Jun. 2019.
  4. COVID-19 pandemic triggers 25% increase in prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide.” World Health Association. 2 Mar. 2022.
  5. Gordon, Joshua.One Year In: COVID-19 and Mental Health.” National Institute of Mental Health. 9 Apr. 2021.
  6. Clifton, Jim.The Next Global Pandemic: Mental Health.” Gallup: The Chairman’s Blog. 3 Dec. 2021.
  7. Hamel, Liz et al.KFF Health Tracking Poll – July 2020.” KFF. 27 Jul. 2020.
  8. Panchal, Nirmita et al.The Implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Use.” 10 Feb. 2021.
  9. Mental health.” World Health Organization. n.d.
  10. Mental Health By the Numbers.” National Alliance on Mental Illness. Feb. 2022.
  11. Comprehensive Mental Health Action Plan 2013–2020. World Health Organization. 21 Sep. 2021.
  12. Stigma, Prejudice and Discrimination Against People with Mental Illness.” American Psychiatric Association. Aug. 2020.



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