Anxiety, alcohol abuse among pandemic-related mental health challenges Americans are facing

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Newswise – More than two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, behavioral health concerns continue to disrupt the lives of Americans, and addressing these concerns should be a top priority, according to a new study from the Tulane University School of Social Work.

Recently appeared in the magazine scientific reports, Research by Patrick Bordnick, dean of the School of Social Work, and Tonya Hansel, a disaster mental health expert who oversees the school’s doctoral program, say that despite immunizations and restrictions lifted, mental health issues remain a crucial concern as the pandemic strikes a recovery phase occurs.

“We found increased anxiety, depression and alcohol abuse and that the pandemic was exacerbating previous problems,” Hansel said.

“While many look forward to their new normal or return to pre-pandemic lifestyles, the ongoing threat, vaccine uncertainties and strain variations serve as a cautionary tale that the global pandemic is ongoing,” she said. “Regardless of how long it takes to fully recover, more than a year of heightened anxiety, loneliness, economic fallout and grief suggest behavioral health will have longer-term consequences.”

In addition to Hansel and Bordnick, other members of the team include Leia Saltzman, assistant professor of social work; Pamela Melton, Professor of Practice; and Tanisha Clark, a licensed clinical social worker.

The researchers surveyed Americans from more than 30 states and represented a wide range of ages, ethnicities, educational backgrounds and income levels. Although more than a quarter of respondents said they had mental health problems before the pandemic, mental health problems rose to 33 percent during the pandemic.

Anxiety increased 47 percent, while depression increased 9 percent. Respondents also reported an 8 percent increase in alcohol abuse.

More than a third of respondents reported COVID-19 experiences such as social isolation, working from home, loss of income and school truancy among children and young people. Participants who noted social isolation and personal health effects had higher levels of anxiety and depression and lower quality of life. Participants with suspected or diagnosed COVID-19 reported more alcohol abuse and a lower quality of life.

The survey data comes from the early stages of the pandemic, and Hansel said Americans continue to face related mental health issues.

“We’re seeing problems now and will see more behavioral health problems in the years to come,” Bordnick said. “Increased relapse rates and new cases are increasing every day.”

Hansel agreed. When the mental health threat has dissipated after a disaster and individuals move out of survival mode, behavioral health issues become more evident and, as a result, services such as psychoeducation, therapy and respite care are needed.”

“Before the pandemic, we had a shortage of mental health professionals. Now that demand has increased, the shortage is greater,” said Bordnick. “We hope this data will raise awareness of the urgency to fund accessible behavioral health services to address pre-existing needs and the emerging stress and anxiety related to the pandemic.”

The study says there is an “urgent need” for improved behavioral health services, including brief interventions to normalize symptoms, raise awareness of risk factors and teach coping skills.

The study also suggests that the advances made towards telemedicine over the past year may continue and improve access to mental health services.

“At this point of disaster, more intensive treatments should also be made available, particularly for those who present specific risk factors, such as the young and middle-aged groups, those with limited incomes and a history of behavioral health problems, and those living in communities with poorer health,” said Bordnick.

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