Of the coronavirus’s many side effects, perhaps the least appreciated are psychological. Those who’ve had a bad case and survived, like people who’ve been in war or accidents, may suffer post-traumatic stress for years. And even people in the as-yet-healthy majority are hurting. Young adults, in particular, are getting more depressed and anxious as SARS-CoV-2 uproots whatever budding life plans they’d been nursing.
It’s long been clear that COVID-19, like any major disaster, is causing an increase in mental-health disorders and their accompanying evils. Those range from alcoholism and drug addiction to wife beating and child abuse. In the Americas, the world’s most afflicted region with hot spots from the US to Brazil, this psycho-social crisis has become its own epidemic, the World Health Organization’s regional branch said this week.
In the US, the national rate of anxiety tripled in the second quarter compared to the same period in 2019 (from 8.1 percent to 25.5 percent), and depression almost quadrupled (from 6.5 percent to 24.3 percent). In Britain, which has also had a severe outbreak and a long lockdown, depression has roughly doubled, from 9.7 percent of adults before the pandemic to 19.2 percent in June.
As with everything else about this virus, the suffering isn’t spread evenly. As I said in April, COVID-19 hits the poor harder than the rich and minorities worse than whites. And as I wrote last month, it also derails the careers and lives of some generations -- specifically, Millennials -- more than those of others. It’s a similar story with the spread of depression and anxiety, which are disproportionately tormenting minorities.
Perhaps more surprisingly, it’s also the youngest adults who are suffering the most mental anguish, in the US and the UK and presumably elsewhere too. At first glance, this might seem odd, since young adults, like children, have less risk of major health complications from COVID-19.
But even the young worry about their older relatives. Perhaps more pertinently, older adults had already built their lives before the pandemic -- with routines, structures, careers and relationships to fall back on. The young had not, and were just embarking on that adventure when COVID-19 struck.
And what a mess it has made of all those hopes. Even in good times, adolescents and young adults aren’t exactly paragons of emotional stability. Many are unhappy with their own bodies or confused about their professional path, their sexual options and their friendships.
But in 2020 all these bugbears have grown. Schools and universities have been shut and this fall may close again, or enter newfangled student rotations with partial presence, masked distancing and little fun. Summer camps have been canceled, as have many internships and job offers. Concerts and parties are frowned upon or banned. The social lives and job-hunting networks of young adults, for the first time in recent memory, have paused.
And replacing in-person, tactile and pheromonal interactions with screens and apps just doesn’t cut it. Biologically, we’re still like other primates, who need to groom and be groomed to lower cortisol levels and feel well. One result, especially for the hormonal young, is isolation and loneliness, which can lead to listlessness and despair: in short, depression.
The rise in anxiety may have more to do with something else COVID-19 has foisted on all of us, but especially on the young: unprecedented uncertainty. In essence, the pandemic has called off all plans, and all planning. Many young adults couldn’t take their final exams and can’t accept the grades handed out in their place. They don’t know whether and when to apply where, given that colleges may or may not open or be worth the tuition. And mom and dad may or may not be able to pay, depending on whether they’ll have an income again.
Young or old, individuals differ in where they rank on the Intolerance of Uncertainty Scale. The less a person is able to embrace uncertainty, the more likely he or she is to enter worry spirals about every possible scenario. This eventually wreaks havoc on our brains and is a major cause of anxiety, including its severe form, Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
So not all people, even among the young, are at risk, because everyone is psychologically unique -- introverts may even thrive in this time of social distancing. But the spread of anxiety and depression is enough of a blight to rank alongside viral transmission as a concern. The scars will be long-term, from delayed learning and broken relationships to abandoned dreams and more suicides.
For policymakers, this means they must consider both the virus and the human mind when deciding future lockdown measures. And they must find more money and help for those with problems -- globally, there’s fewer than one mental-health professional for every 10,000 sufferers, most of whom get no treatment at all.
For us as individuals, it means we need to brace ourselves. As cases rise again, even in countries that thought they had the virus under control, a second wave this fall seems likely, perhaps requiring more restrictions and disruptions. Everything remains entirely uncertain. The year 2020 seems to be asking all of us to learn to live with that.
Andreas Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. -- Ed.