By Ambassador Callista L. Gingrich
For more than two years, America has been coping with the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since early 2020, the United States has marshaled the full weight of our government, public and private institutions, and health care systems to respond to the coronavirus.
As hundreds of millions of lives have been impacted by the virus, we are now beginning to understand that COVID-19 is here to stay.
Working to treat and mitigate the effects of the coronavirus itself, we must simultaneously work to address the myriad of long-term consequences resulting from two years of lockdowns, isolation, restrictions, and uncertainty.
The United States has experienced an unprecedented surge in mental illness. Tom Lachiusa, a licensed clinical social worker in Massachusetts, told The New York Times, “All the therapists I know have experienced a demand for therapy that is like nothing they have experienced before.”
Although many ailments predate the pandemic, the forced isolation, constant fear, and daily instability have made our nation’s mental health crisis worse – particularly among young girls.
According to a public advisory from the U.S. surgeon general, “In early 2021, emergency room visits in the United States for suspected suicide attempts were 51% higher for adolescent girls – compared to the same time period in early 2019.”
During the pandemic, relationships have also been strained. Marriage and family therapists interviewed by The New York Times said they have seen an increase in the number of couples seeking counseling. Chris Davis, a marriage and family therapist in Kentucky said, “It feels like more couples are on the brink of separating or divorcing. They’re fighting, their communication is negative, or it seems they’re just apathetic.”
Additionally, the pandemic has amplified addiction and substance abuse, which households across America have faced for years.
On October 26, 2017, the opioid crisis was declared a public health emergency by the Department of Health and Human Services. Namely due to the widespread prevalence of fentanyl, deaths have tragically skyrocketed, breaking records during the course of the pandemic.
For the first time, deaths caused by drug overdoses have surpassed 100,000 in a 12-month period, while fentanyl overdoses have been identified as the leading cause of death for Americans ages 18-45. As activist Ryan Hampton wrote in Unsettled, “I know what the cost of ignoring addiction is – it means that we’ll keep losing our friends, family members, loved ones, and neighbors to a highly treatable health care problem that is severely stigmatized.”
Sadly, it’s not just the abuse of opioids that has risen amidst the pandemic. Thirty-one percent of those who drink alcohol, surveyed by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and Lifeworks, reported an increase in alcohol consumption during the pandemic.
In addition, heightened substance abuse has led to domestic violence. In 2020, global domestic violence cases rose by 25-33 percent according to the American Journal of Emergency Medicine. Sumayah Abed, M.D., an assistant professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said, “Besides the quarantine situation, the pandemic also aggravated alcohol abuse, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. All of these factors created an environment that exacerbates domestic violence.”
Although these crises existed prior to the pandemic, it is clear that mental health struggles, substance abuse, and domestic violence have intensified since 2020. It is not enough to defeat the pandemic, we must also heal the damage it has done to our friends, families, and communities.