A national mental health crisis
Data from the Center’s COVID Reset Project suggests that long after the virus disappears, Americans will still be wrestling with the psychic damage of the last few years. Center director Jeffrey Cole explains.
By Jeffrey Cole
How long does it take before the painful memories of a national trauma fade away?
Long after we settle the sticky issues around return to work (probably with most of us returning to the office most of the time), the mental toll of living through the COVID pandemic (even if we never lost a loved one or caught it ourselves) will linger.
Decades from now, today’s teenagers will recount for their grandchildren the year or more we moved our lives inside, afraid of contact with anyone except those living with us. They will revisit the pain of what we have all lived through.
The Center’s COVID Reset Project shows that the toll on our mental health will be, by far, the most important legacy of COVID. It will cast the longest shadow.
Since January of 2021, we have been asking “How are you feeling?” We gave each respondent seventeen choices and asked how many they were feeling.
The number one emotion was “concerned,” with 59% of us expressing that feeling. The percentage of those feeling concerned has gone up by three percentage points over two years.
The second most common emotion is “anxious” at 44%, up by four percentage points. Third, is “frustrated” at 43%, up two percentage points. Fourth is “stressed” at 37%, up one percentage point.
All these negative emotions have increased.
We don’t see the first positive emotion until number five with “hopeful” at 33%. However, that is down from 41% at the beginning of last year.
Then we are back in the negative feelings with “uncertain” at 31% (up two percentage points), “overwhelmed” at 29% (up five percentage points), and “nervous” at 25% (up two percentage points).
Tied with nervous—and only the second positive result—“grateful” comes in at tenth, down one percentage point. The remaining positive feelings all come in under 20%, with “happy” at 16% (down one percentage point), “content” at 13% (no change) and “relieved” at eight percent (up three).
This is devastating data.
It shows that even as we have left our homes, resumed much or all of our old lives, and gotten on planes to travel the world, we are nervous, uncomfortable, and uncertain.
It’s not getting any better.
For most of us, COVID’s toll on our bodies has loosened its grip, but its toll on our mental well-being is stronger than ever. Most sobering of all is that we are not concerned, anxious, and frustrated about the virus itself. Instead, we worry about how our lives and world will change when the pandemic truly ends.
While “Long COVID” may linger in our bodies for a year or two, the mental impact of the pandemic may be lifelong.
The new pandemic is all about mental health
Since at least the First World War, we know that some soldiers never got past the terrors of war in what came to be called “shell shock.” Many people were unsympathetic to survivors’ inability to move beyond their painful memories of war. Instead of offering empathy and treatment, the insensitive cruelly told veterans to get over it. In 1943 during the Sicily Campaign, General George S. Patton slapped two soldiers in a military hospital who were unable to fight but had no physical injuries. Patton considered them cowards. Later he was forced to apologize to the soldiers.
Only after the quagmire of jungle fighting in Vietnam did therapists give “battle fatigue” a clinical name, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
The COVID disconnect from our larger family and friends—the fear that we and those we love might die and that the virus might never go away have created a COVID-related PTSD that we can see in the data above.
Even before the COVID lockdown, members of Gen Z had elevated levels of anxiety, loneliness, and depression. Post COVID, we can see an emerging mental health crisis.
The crisis breaks strongly among age lines. Only 26% of Gen Z rate their mental health as good or excellent. The numbers improve with each age group, but they are most positive among Boomers: 55% evaluate their mental health as good or excellent.
Fully 50% of Gen Z assess their mental health as only fair or actively poor, but only 21% of Boomers do. The differences between the youngest and oldest Americans are staggering.
More astounding, Boomers consider their physical health to be superior to Gen Z’s assessment of their physical health. Forty-four percent of Boomers rate their physical health as good or excellent, but only 39% of Gen Z do so. Of course, Gen Zs can have cancer or chronic physical problems, but 16-25 is the healthiest stage of human life.
All this adds up to a national health emergency.
Covid vs. The Great Depression
The Great Depression, beginning in 1929 and lasting to the beginning of World War II, created massive levels of fear and anxiety about jobs, being able to feed ourselves and our families, housing, and whether our lives would ever again have purpose. It took a very serious toll on mental health.
Even as we have left our homes, resumed much or all of our old lives, and gotten on planes to travel the world, we are nervous, uncomfortable, and uncertain. It’s not getting any better. For most of us, COVID’s toll on our bodies has loosened its grip, but its toll on our mental well-being is stronger than ever. Most sobering of all is that we are not concerned, anxious, and frustrated about the virus itself. Instead, we worry about how our lives and world will change when the pandemic truly ends.
At that time, there was little treatment for those who suffered psychic wounds. During the Depression, those whose lives were turned upside down, and lost their self-confidence, suffered in silence. There was surprisingly little civil unrest. Those who lived through the Depression carried those painful memories for the rest of their lives.
My parents saved large percentages of their income, denying themselves almost all indulgences even after they became financially comfortable. They could never waste money. To my father, a job was what you endured to take care of your family. Jobs were precious parts of life to be respected. He could never understand giving up a job because it wasn’t fulfilling (although he was supportive when I did).
Unlike battle, which only part of the country experiences, everyone went through COVID.
Workplaces and schools may have to bring therapists or those trained to deal with the mental toll of COVID in for occasional “tune-ups” to help deal with lingering issues.
For the rest of our lives, we will experience occasional reminders of COVID. If a new virus emerges, even if it ends up being harmless, it will trigger anxiety. In 20 years, teenagers who were born after the pandemic, but who have heard stories all their lives, will wonder what all the fuss was about… just like people my age wondered about the Depression.
Several times, it seemed the virus was disappearing once and for all, only for it to return more contagious (if less deadly) than ever. Eventually COVID will disappear, becoming only a memory.
But that memory will be its lasting legacy.
Note: this is the third and final installment of a series about the results of our COVID Reset Project. The first piece concerned things that we know have been decided. The second concerned the as yet undecided return to the office. All three pieces can be read independently.
Jeffrey Cole is the founder and director of The Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg.
See all columns from the center.
August 3, 2022