We need to take our post-pandemic mental health crisis seriously 

Addressing the Post-Pandemic Mental Health Crisis: A Call for Urgent Action

Our country is going through a tough time mentally. Recently, two young people were charged in connection with the 48th mass shooting of 2024, which happened during the Kansas City Chiefs parade. This tragic event is a clear signal that we need to focus more on our nation’s mental health.

Back in 1918, the influenza pandemic led to mental health issues and neurological symptoms in many survivors. Studies from that time show the pandemic had a lasting impact on people’s brains and mental well-being.

Fast forward to the present, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a similar effect, especially on young people between the ages of 3-17, with a significant rise in depression and anxiety. Adults haven’t been spared either, with many turning to alcohol as a way to cope with the stress and isolation brought on by the pandemic. With over a million lives lost to COVID in the United States alone, almost everyone has been touched by the virus in some way.

Research indicates that more than half of Americans believe they’ve had COVID-19, and about 15% of adults are dealing with long COVID. To put this in perspective, the AIDS epidemic claimed 700,000 lives by 2018, but COVID-19 has surpassed this number in just four years in the US.

In my work, both in research and in treating patients, I’ve seen the mental health toll of COVID-19 firsthand. The effects are just beginning to surface.

When I was studying biological sciences at the University of Chicago, we learned that the human body is made up of about 30 trillion cells, each playing a role in keeping us healthy. When a virus attacks, it can make the whole body sick. I like to think of society in a similar way. Like cells in a body, each member of society has a role in keeping it functioning.

In recent years, we’ve seen a decline in discussions about racial equity and an increase in mass shootings, hate crimes, and random acts of violence. Internationally, conflicts like the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, tensions between China and Taiwan, and the Israeli-Hamas war have added to the global stress.

The concept of allostatic load explains how chronic stress can lead to significant changes in the brain. Many people are becoming numb to the suffering around them, both globally and in their personal lives.

Children, too, are feeling the effects. Some turn to drugs for relief, often with tragic outcomes due to substances like fentanyl. Millennials and Generation Z are reported to be the most anxious generations, facing high levels of stress, depression, and substance dependence.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that America, like a body made up of different cells, is suffering. Yet, there’s a push to return to “normal” without addressing the underlying mental health issues.

It’s crucial for individuals to recognize their mental health needs. Government agencies, religious organizations, and community groups must come together to support mental health and eliminate the stigma surrounding mental illness. The recent investment by President Biden in youth mental health is a step in the right direction, but it needs to be expanded to include all age groups.

As a psychiatrist, I see the challenges in accessing mental health care every day, with patients waiting months for appointments. It’s clear that addressing this mental health crisis should be a top priority for our nation.

Aderonke Pederson, an assistant professor and psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, emphasizes the importance of this issue. She is dedicated to researching stigma and digital health technology to improve mental health care access and quality.