We all know the COVID-19 pandemic profoundly affected virtually everyone on the planet. But, beyond the staggering death toll and widespread illness, and aside from the economic fallout that we’re still struggling with, simply living through a global pandemic for more than two years has impacted even those lucky people who were never infected with the virus.

Nowhere is the negative effect of pandemic life more visible than in the mental health of a large portion of the world’s population. Unfortunately, the measures necessary to try to control the virus’ spread, particularly those that forced us into social isolation, may have endangered our mental health while protecting us from infection.

As the world tries to recover from the most dangerous pandemic stages, it’s becoming increasingly clear that recovery will require tending to our damaged mental health. Studies are beginning to identify the problems, and their magnitude is sobering. For example, in just the first year of the pandemic, the World Health Organization observed a 25% increase in cases of anxiety and depression across the globe. And as more studies are published, it’s evident that the problem wasn’t confined to the pandemic’s early days.

The Effects of Isolation

It shouldn’t be surprising that social isolation forced by the pandemic would have adverse mental health effects. Studies that measured the outcome of social contact deprivation in groups such as prisoners or others who were unable to have healthy social interactions, conclusively demonstrated that our mental health suffers when we don’t have contact with other people.

The warning signs surfaced early in the pandemic. Studies in China and Italy, hard-hit countries that instituted extremely restrictive virus-control measures, showed significant increases in a range of mental health-related issues, including:

  • Depression
  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Emotional fatigue
  • Substance abuse

These issues were new problems in people who were healthy before the pandemic. But there is also evidence that the pandemic may have worsened pre-existing conditions.

Who Is at Risk?

While isolation is hard on everyone’s mental health, research suggests that some people are more vulnerable than others. Factors that could put you at higher risk for mental health issues during the pandemic include:

  • Length of isolation. Not surprisingly, mental health impacts are likely to be more severe the longer you’re isolated from healthy social contact.
  • The severity of the virus spread in the area. Mental health seems to have been more at risk in places where the virus was most active.
  • Access to online social contact. People who used technology to maintain their social interaction seem to have been able to ease mental-health impacts.
  • Space. People who could isolate in places with adequate space were more likely to stay healthy than those who were in cramped or crowded areas.
  • Light. Access to light in isolation spaces was also a meaningful way to ward off mental health issues.
  • Age. In general, older people tend to be more sensitive to the effects of isolation, although studies of the pandemic have produced some surprising findings regarding age.
  • Socioeconomic level. Many people in lower economic classes were less able to control their exposure to risk factors (e.g., adequate space or access to technology) and were consequently more at risk.
  • Exercise. Many studies have suggested that maintaining a healthy level of physical activity during the pandemic was one of the most effective ways to stay mentally healthy.
COVID Isolation and Mental Health: What the Pandemic Did to Us

Older Adults are Vulnerable…

We often get more isolated as we age, even under normal circumstances. For example, physical health problems make it harder for us to get around, making it more challenging to maintain healthy social interactions. This natural tendency toward isolation makes older people especially vulnerable to mental health issues.

The pandemic would seem to have been a dangerous situation for older people regarding mental health. In addition, because older adults were at higher risk for the physical effects of COVID, they required more intense isolation measures.

It is reasonable to assume that isolation measures would have an outsized impact on older people. The number of people saying that they felt lonely more than doubled during the pandemic, and older people historically have been more vulnerable to feelings of loneliness.

It’s also reasonable to worry about the effects of the pandemic on older people. Isolation hits them hard, producing not just mental health issues but also physical impacts and higher mortality rates. Even more concerning, the effects are bi-directional: isolation causes mental health issues, and mental health issues tend to worsen social isolation.

…But Young Adults are at Higher Risk

It’s reasonable to assume older adults were more at risk from pandemic isolation, but this assumption may be inaccurate. Research indicates that when it came to feelings of loneliness during the pandemic, young adults seemed to be the ones who were at the highest risk. For example, one study found that while one-third of all people said they felt lonely during the pandemic, almost two-thirds of people aged 18-25 said so. This is a higher rate than even the oldest demographic.

Researchers don’t know exactly why young people are so vulnerable to loneliness, but they do have some guesses:

  • Young adults are often in a state of social transition as they shift from close relationships with their family to relying more on relationships with their friends. The pandemic may have caught many young people in the middle of this transition when they had fewer social connections to lean on.
  • College students may have already been suffering from homesickness when the pandemic struck, and isolation measures may have made those feelings worse.
  • Isolation measures may have had a significant impact on young adults who were not in school and didn’t have easy access to the social interactions associated with school.
  • Young adults often are under tremendous stress as they face a barrage of important life decisions (about school, career, etc.), and isolation could have compounded this stress.

Even if it’s not entirely clear why young adults felt so lonely during the pandemic, the negative impacts on their mental health are not hard to figure out. Loneliness can cause feelings of hopelessness or low self-worth, often leading to more isolation. It’s a spiral that can often result in anxiety, depression, and even suicide.

The Pandemic May Have Changed Our Personalities

Perhaps even more concerning are indications that the pandemic may even have triggered changes in young people’s personalities beyond producing acute mental health issues. For example, although multiple studies indicate young people may have shown a slight increase in emotional stability early in the pandemic, they may have also shown a decline in personality traits such as trust and conscientiousness later in the pandemic.

What could explain this personality roller coaster? Researchers think it may have to do with how we all responded to the challenges presented by the pandemic. Early on, there may have been a sense of social cohesion (we’re all in this together) and an enthusiastic motivation to take care of our mental health. But as the pandemic wore on, social cohesion was gradually replaced by social conflict, which could have negatively impacted our trust in others. It also could have made us less interested in new ideas.

Research on these potential personality shifts is preliminary, and there’s no indication that they’re long-lasting, even if the changes are real. In any case, suggesting that a global event like the COVID pandemic could shift the core of our psychology is unexpected and troubling.

Resistance to Isolation is Harmful, Too

Pandemic-induced isolation was undoubtedly harmful to our health. Still, resistance to that isolation may have been just as damaging. New research suggests people whose political ideologies led them to resist measures to protect themselves from COVID may have had a significantly higher mortality rate from the virus. They also may have had more mental health issues.

A study in Poland found that people prone to conspiratorial thinking (e.g., thinking that pandemic restrictions or vaccines were part of a plot to control the population) showed more severe symptoms of anxiety and depression than people who didn’t subscribe to such theories.

Why did this way of thinking impact mental health negatively? Some possibilities include the following:

  • Uncertainty about where the direction of the pandemic was heading, compounded by confusing and frightening misinformation.
  • Fear and a pessimistic worldview may have compounded stress and exacerbated anxiety and depression.
  • Frustration over restrictions and isolation may also have increased pressure.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Isolation and restrictions have eased since the pandemic’s peak, but COVID is not gone. More importantly, we don’t know how long-lasting the pandemic’s mental health impacts will be. So with that in mind, what can we do to protect ourselves and our loved ones?

  • Watch for lingering effects. Just because the most extreme pandemic-induced situations seem to be behind us doesn’t mean our mental health will improve. We must be aware of potential issues in ourselves and our loved ones and be prepared to get help when needed.
  • Don’t overlook the risk to young people. Early in the pandemic, we assumed our responsibility was to protect the elderly. Now we know that, at least in terms of mental health, young adults seem most at risk.
  • Stop the spread of misinformation. Stress and anxiety have been the drivers of pandemic-induced mental health problems, and misinformation has been a significant source of stress for many of the population. Getting our information from reliable scientific sources will go a long way toward reducing your overall stress load.

Helpful Resources

When seeking additional resources regarding depression, anxiety, substance abuse, or other mental health-related topics, refer to the United Brain Association website. We share information on more than 300 brain and mental health-related issues, including causes, diagnosis, treatment, and current research. In addition, our community members have shared stories about their experiences and those of their children, providing additional insight into health and well-being. 

If you’d like to receive updates, news, scheduled events, or more information about our ongoing donor-funded research projects, sign up for our email newsletter by clicking here. Together we can find a cure for brain disorders and mental-health-related issues.

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