Mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic: Effects of stay-at-home policies, social distancing behavior, and social resources

Social distancing is the most visible public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but its implications for mental health are unknown. In a nationwide online sample of 435 U.S. adults, conducted in March 2020 as the pandemic accelerated and states implemented stay-at-home orders, we examined whether stay-at-home orders and individuals’ personal distancing behavior were associated with symptoms of depression, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), intrusive thoughts, insomnia, and acute stress. Stay-at-home order status and personal distancing were independently associated with higher symptoms, beyond protective effects of available social resources (social support and social network size). A subsample of 118 participants who had completed symptom measures earlier in the outbreak (February 2020) showed increases in depression and GAD between February and March, and personal distancing behavior was associated with these increases. Findings suggest that there are negative mental health correlates of social distancing, which should be addressed in research, policy, and clinical approaches to the COVID-19 pandemic.


Schools, Adults and kids during a Mental Health Crisis

Changes to school are negatively impacting Gen Z. Most Gen Z teens ages 13–17 (81%) report they have experienced negative impacts of pandemic-related school closures, and half (51%) say the pandemic makes planning for their future feel impossible. Like teens, 2 in 3 Gen Z adults in college (67%) say the pandemic makes planning for their future feel impossible. Further, most Gen Z adults in college (87%) report education is a significant source of stress in their lives.

“Loneliness and uncertainly about the future are major stressors for adolescents and young adults, who are striving to find their places in the world, both socially, and in terms of education and work. The pandemic and its economic consequences are upending youths’ social lives and their visions for their futures,” said Emma Adam, PhD, Edwina S. Tarry Professor of Education and Social Policy. “We must work to provide social, emotional and mental health supports to this generation, while providing much-needed financial assistance and educational and work opportunities for youth. Both comfort now and hope for the future are essential for the long-term well-being of this generation.”


Stress in America

Stress in AmericaTM 2020: A National Mental Health Crisis, conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of APA, found that nearly 8 in 10 adults (78%) say the coronavirus pandemic is a significant source of stress in their lives, while 3 in 5 (60%) say the number of issues America faces is overwhelming to them. Gen Z adults, on average, say their stress level during the prior month is 6.1, on a scale from 1 to 10 where 1 means “little to no stress” and 10 means “a great deal of stress.” This compares with a reported average stress level among all adults of 5.0.

Nearly 1 in 5 adults (19%) say their mental health is worse than it was at this time last year. By generation, 34% of Gen Z adults report worse mental health, followed by Gen X (21%), millennials (19%), boomers (12%) and older adults (8%). Gen Z adults are the most likely to report experiencing common symptoms of depression, with more than 7 in 10 noting that in the prior two weeks they felt so tired that they sat around and did nothing (75%), felt very restless (74%), found it hard to think properly or concentrate (73%), felt lonely (73%), or felt miserable or unhappy (71%).


CDC Statistics for Adults

The CDC data is not the only research to indicate a widespread increase in mental health issues, particularly anxiety. Recently, the Kaiser Family Foundation released the results of a poll showing that 53% of respondents believe COVID-19 is taking a toll on their mental health, an increase of 14% since May.2

  • Anxiety/depression symptoms: 31%
  • Trauma/stressor-related disorder symptoms: 26%
  • Started or increased substance use: 13%
  • Seriously considered suicide: 11%

Mental Health in Adults

The COVID-19 pandemic is causing significant increases in mental health conditions and substance use, with 40% of adults struggling in the United States, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).1

Experts fear that prolonged stress and ongoing uncertainty may have lasting consequences for our mental health.

“The brain loves certainty, familiarity, routines, plans, and habits. When those are missing, it can be very challenging. When they’re missing for months, and potentially long into the future, then it gets even more problematic, ” says Paul Nestadt, MD, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.


Helping our children cope with anxiety and depression

Fun: Children need to have fun to stay resilient, active, engaged, and hopeful. From a child’s perspective, daily fun is essential. Craft structured or spontaneous daily fun activities with the family, a few trusted friends, and teachers to re-invigorate your children with enthusiasm and laughter. Treasure hunts, scavenger hunts, balloon tosses, slip and slides, sprinklers, magic and talent shows, and costume parties are simple but fun ways to breathe life back into kids. For teenagers, support their small social circles, their romantic relationships, safe outdoor sports such as surfing, running, hiking, and camping to gradually re-infuse them with motivation and engagement. If adolescents are connected, motivated, and engaged in fun activities, they are far less likely to use substances or self-harm to escape and cope with their depression and helplessness.


Continued ideas to help our children cope with depression and anxiety

Creativity: Facilitate creative daily projects that allow children to use their imagination. Arts, crafts, mechanics, woodwork, building computers and cars, gardening, magic kits, water play, costumes, sewing, and culinary arts are all good choices to offer your child. Create long lists of options, and create spaces in your garage, bathrooms, kitchens, and backyards for your children to immerse themselves in creative play. For instance, I had one client whose parents described their daughter as a “ghost of a child”; severely depressed and disengaged, she refused to leave the house for days. The parents thought out-of-the-box and had her collect tadpoles from a nearby lagoon. She built “ponds” for them in the backyard to watch them grow into frogs. The child was overjoyed and spent delightful hours with her “new friends.” Creativity is the source of light and joy and can be incredibly therapeutic for children and adolescents.