May 22, 2021

PEOPLE HAVE GOTTEN ‘INSTITUTIONALIZED’ BY COVID: Why ‘getting back to normal’ may actually feel terrifying.

Some 15 months of lockdowns, loneliness, Zoom calls, grief, illness, monotony, job loss, and economic hardship has caused “an extraordinary rise in anxiety and depression,” says Boston College developmental psychologist Rebekah Levine Coley. “The level of these disorders … are unprecedented.”

During the pandemic’s first nine months, six times as many American adults reported mental health issues as in early 2019. This is according to U.S. Census Bureau data collected as part of the ongoing Household Pulse Survey, which is quantifying the social and economic effects of the coronavirus on U.S. households. As of February, of the nearly 1.5 million U.S. adults who participated in these surveys, 41.5 percent reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, similar to other countries that have tracked mental health.

Anxiety or depression manifest in many ways. Some can’t focus, are unproductive, or are utterly exhausted. Many are grieving the loss of loved ones. Others are lonely or unsure of what to do now that they’re vaccinated, or fearful about a variant evading vaccine protection and making them or their loved ones ill.

Researchers and clinicians report that people are sleeping poorly or forming unhealthy habits. One study found that acute social isolation sparks cravings similar to hunger, leading some people to eat more and gain weight; for some of them, the “quarantine 15” has become the “quarantine 30.” In one study 60 percent of people reported heavier drinking.

The inability to cope has sparked other, darker consequences. Soaring suicide rates in Japan prompted the appointment of a “minister of loneliness” in February. Suicide hasn’t spiked in the U.S. or Europe, but with many still in survival mode, trauma symptoms could manifest later.

The U.S. saw a sharp rise in other “deaths of despair” in 2020. Drug overdoses, mostly from fentanyl and other synthetic opioids, may have exceeded 90,000, up from 70,630 in 2019. While numbers had been climbing, that was the largest rise in two decades.

The Shawshank Redemption wasn’t meant to be a how-to guide for coping with a long stretch in prison.

UPDATE (FROM GLENN): The rich and powerful thrived as the rest of us suffered in the year of lockdowns.

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