The Pandemic, Mental Health, and Stigma

Will the pandemic affect mental illness stigma?

Caz of Mental Health 360º recently wrote about languishing and how people’s mental health has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. It made me wonder, will this change how people look at mental health and illness?

Effects on mental health

Isolation, lockdown, and stressors like job loss and financial strain have certainly brought mental health more front-of-mind to the general public. A Statistics Canada survey that ran from September to December 2020 screened for major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and PTSD. Among Canadian adults, 21% screened positive for at least one of the three disorders (screening tests tell who might have a condition, but don’t narrow down who actually does have it). Depression was the most common, with 15% of people screening positive.

In the US, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll showed that about 4 in 10 Americans have reported symptoms of a depressive or anxiety disorder, which has been fairly consistent throughout the pandemic. Among young adults, that figure jumps to 56%.

Government response

Freely accessible mental health supports have also popped up, like How Right Now from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Wellness Together from the Government of Canada. In October 2020, the World Health Organization put on The Big Event to promote mental health, which I don’t recall hearing about.

It seems like governments and charitable organizations are trying to normalize paying attention to your mental health, which is a good thing. The resources I’ve come across online seem to be focused particularly on self-care, with limited access to counselling.

Lasting attitudes

It seems to be about health rather than illness—not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it keeps it all a step removed from those of us who are ill. So is any of this likely to lead to changes in stigma?

Perhaps (and I hope) the challenges of the pandemic will make people better able to empathize with those who have an anxiety or depressive disorder. Then again, maybe empathy wouldn’t extend beyond those who are seen as having a good reason to be struggling. Hard to say. I think there’s less likelihood of a sort of empathy carry-over to other conditions, like bipolar or psychotic disorders.

Perhaps the best outcome is if this worldwide shitstorm makes it easier to have conversations, and continue having conversations, about mental health and illness. Who knows if it will happen, but one can hope.

Do you think the pandemic is likely to change the way people think about mental health/illness?

Book cover: A Brief History of Stigma by Ashley L. Peterson

My latest book, A Brief History of Stigma, looks at the nature of stigma, the contexts in which it occurs, and how to challenge it most effectively.

You can find it on Amazon and Google Play.

Stop the stigma: Resources to challenge mental illness stigma

You can find more on mental illness stigma on the Stop the Stigma page.

70 thoughts on “The Pandemic, Mental Health, and Stigma”

  1. “The resources I’ve come across online seem to be focused particularly on self-care, with limited access to counselling”

    Hard to see meaningful change without conversation, as you say. Talking to a professional probably helps normalize talking about mental health. PSAs ran on US TV about seizing the awkward, talking to someone you’re concerned about (mental health). Seemed very 7th grade but it’s a start.

    Yes, it seems easier/safer for us to tell people who ask how we are that we’re more symptomatic since Covid. Seems more likely people will relate.

  2. I don’t know how it will affect stigma, but I strongly suspect that hygiene OCD will become more common, and it may get harder for people to tell the difference between good hygiene and OCD, and to get help for it.

  3. Call me crazy! Call me mixed up! But I believe the covid pandemic, while beyond devastating to the population’s health and mental health, has been oddly “helpful” in the fight against the stigma associated with mental illness. When my daughter was struggling last December / January I must have made a dozen calls trying to secure a talk therapist for her. Everywhere was jam full. It seemed like every kid in America was seeking a therapist’s help. Likewise, there has been a lot of coverage on the evening news about the stress of covid and its impacts particularly on kids and teens and college students. This is dreadful! This is scary! This hits too close to home!

    I would never wish the experience of anxiety and depression on any one, more than anything I don’t wish this on a kid. But, I do believe there is a small silver lining to covid-induced mental health concerns. People are talking about mental health and mental illness in the regular vocabulary of how their kids are doing. Kids are also piping up to say how covid has affected them mentally and emotionally.

    It appears to me that covid has given people a much-needed “excuse” to talk openly about mental health whether that be parents for parents, parents for their kids or kids for themselves. Ideally, just the idea that communications are opening up around mental health may make the mental illness stigma less powerful or less prevalent. And who knows it may also help in dissipating mental health symptoms as well?

    1. I hope so. One of my blogging friends, Johnzelle, is a therapist working with youth and young adults, and he’s been super busy during the pandemic.

  4. I agree that it’s been helpful overall in opening people’s minds to the various ways of coping with a scary environment. So many things are beyond our control, and the pandemic has brought that front and center. What isn’t helpful though (and I have been guilty of this too) is labeling everyone “crazy” you disagree with politically.

    1. Yes. I agree. It seems like we need a good dose of common compassion even toward the people with whom we disagree or maybe mostly toward them. Agree to disagree? Easier said than done.

  5. Keeping the conversation open and yes, intentionally to normalize the experiences we all have with our mental health. Speaking about it in an honest way because we all either know someone or have experienced some level of mental health challenge at some point in our lives. This pandemic has affected 100% of the world so I believe the more we ea hcanadd the the conversation the more humanity can gain from understanding and accepting we are all together in this world. Connection is key. I always have hope and spread as much kindness and compassion as I can 😊❤

  6. Someone close to me recently said – “I never used to understand depression as an illness, but after all the isolating and staying at home, I really get it now.” For some reason, it gave me hope that maybe more people are understanding and empathizing, and good changes might come of it.

  7. I would love to hope that the pandemic has made us all a bit more empathetic towards mental health. I also hope that it’s made us more conscious of physical health/germs too, but I think a lot of that stems from my contamination OCD!

  8. I would like to think it would make people more empathetic. But I don’t think I will see this in my life time. It will probably be more the next generation. The kids of today.

  9. A really good topic to cover. I wrote a post on the pandemic increasing stress levels and a lot of replies agreed they’d experienced a decline in mental health. However, there are some people who’ve found these times to be good for their mental health, typically I suppose those in good health who’ve been put on furlough as they’ve had more time for self-care, hobbies, learning something new, more disposable income etc. It’s a polar opposite to so many so there are some startlingly different experiences. I think this shitstorm does present an opportunity for more conversation as you say, and things are definitely changing on the topic. Whether anything comes of it that can instigate real change where it’s needed, ie. so people can access the support they need, or so that there are changes in society/employment/living standards to reduce things like the rising stress levels, is yet to be seen.. Great topic to cover. xx

    1. It will be interesting to see what ends up happening with employment and whether people will have the opportunity to do a mix of working at the office and working at home. Having flexibility that way could make a big difference in stress levels.

  10. I feel it will make a difference generally speaking.
    Here in my province where I live the Provincial Government has taken positive steps to help the population with “Mental Health”. The premiere created a new portfolio for Mental Health and the cabinet minister that has it, it is all he covers.
    Also, there was created some time ago a phone line dedicated to all things “Mental Health”. The number is “211”..
    These two things alone makes me feel hopeful!

  11. Aaawwww big thanks for the mention Ashley, really interesting post about “what now?” in relation to mental health and illness. Are people more aware of mental illness since the pandemic?

    As you wrote, there’s been an increase in anxiety and depression figures; a huge increase in youngsters. I wonder why that is too? Is it because they find it easier to talk about their feelings/emotions than the older generation.

    I know universities and colleges in the UK all have support systems and counselling in place. The primary and secondary schools also have pastoral support making it easier for kids to access professional help, sooner rather than later.

  12. Yes, I think more and more people will be at risk for falling mentally ill, especially those with financial issues or family/relationship problems. There will be more psychological distress if we look far into the future based on the current situation due to the pandemic. Maybe when psychological distress becomes more and more common, people will start to accept it and see help-seeking as the right thing. But the mental health system needs to keep up with the high demand. It will be great to depend on social media or something to work as human substitutes for counsellors. Something like self-care or peer support. Mental health literacy is important and should be made good use.❤ What you have been sharing really improves my mental health literacy.

    1. You’re so right about the mental health system needing to keep up. For some people, online help and guidance around things like self-care will be enough, but it’s just as important to serve those with higher needs. And if the services are available, perhaps mental health literacy can help people to recognize when they need more support.

  13. The awareness of Mental Health has increased since COVID19. From my perspective and other colleagues I work with there is an increase in people having their first crisis ever, and showing up to ED or making connections to a therapist.
    There is a tremendous increase in children having their own crisis. School were their outlets in which some schools were open until 9pm and other schools had some form of after school activities. Students were not home with their family all day, like they have been over the course of the year.
    So many factors played into their mental health with home school.

  14. Yes. For the next generation of children this will have been a key experience, and talking about coping, and health, is a huge improvement from previous generations!

  15. Somehow with the pandemic, I feel less ‘qualified’ to talk about my mental health problems because I will get remarks like everyone is having a hard time now. So for me, I don’t think it’s going to change.

  16. The pandemic has surely come as a strong blow and has destroyed businesses and a lot more. I’m very lucky to have been safe this entire pandemic and I made the most of my time. This pandemic has given me the best opportunity to start what i love doing- writing. I started a blog this lockdown!

  17. i think the pandemic, covid, had caused compounded stress in every human being there is that had no outlet to vent and the fear of covid and what it does and the uncertainty of so many things in public that is seen such as in the flights, people a number of people dont know how to control basic emotions when stress is so highened that is causes worry and anger and when in a crowd even if that is on an aircraft the slightest thing had set people off, whereas if the virus never came to be a part of the human race or Earth many of those insidents wouldnt of happened in my belief, people get scarred and when in a stressful situation they reacted the way they had. some had gone out doing drugs not just in America yet other countrys too as statists show a highened amount of drug users, and alcoholics. me? i started drinking more often. almost lost my mind over the pandemic coupled with so many other stressors one of them physical well being and lack of money to work on myown things to try to have some path to be happy and feel like i accomplsihed something. i think what helped me and us here at home was finding something to do, one thing we did was work on mask inventions, homemade, then entered themask innovation challenge at, i didnt win as there was a lot of global competation yet i did a good job, we made about 35 designs, i posted one of them on my wordpress account, yet feeling useful helps as does needed and then make a path and find a path to have some kind of goal to achieve takes the mind off of everything that becomes an unnatural stressor.

  18. Yes, it’s a real life fact. During these times, people often believed that mental illness was caused. COVID-19 could dramatically reduce stigma, especially when it comes to seeking care for mental health problems.

  19. Everyone has been vulnerable with mental as the pandemic goes on. No. 1 Trigger, apathy and insensitiveness for something that needs so much understanding and sacrifice. Great post☀️

  20. thats an important topic! before the pandemic my neighborhood was more friendly, blanketed by so many other things that became problems too worsed mental health concerns withing groups and or individually. yet people survive, that is what the human race had done for the longest time, survive where it shouldn’t be embarressing to address mental health concerns with family or friends or coworkers or even in public as some people actually will take the time out to listen. i stopped drinking alcohol more then 5 months ago yet it began at the begining of the pandemic when i began to drink yet stopped in the name of God above, thankfully. i do feel i surrer from something that the pandemic had caused in areas of normal trust where my trust was alqways open and honest to everyone that seemed to be created by how everyone was looking at each other yet i remained open and inside me questioned what others really thought as most harbored inside their mind with what they think, when i was being my normal outspoken self during the pandemic’s height everyone was reacting differantly to each other including myself and that hurt, i now have a current issue with how i see germs and bacteria and cleanliness of the enviroment and or people their self sorta like the tv show monk, i overly question if a surface is contaiminated and or if people have the virus and which virus they have. because the mood of people in the public rapidly decreased my ,more then normally just try to be happy in thepublic at times lacked normal responces so i tried other path’s one trying to make comical jokes or bringing up areas of study and maybe genral intrests the public may have yet found many general intrests had changed of what general intrests use to be where there was more of interests of personal self safety with everyone imet no matter how that is described with the ability to make it through not just a pandemic yet how people began looking at each other in a differant perspective weather that is racially or by status through government or by ranking of a private or major general or rich comparred to poor. society began to sperate at its most important area not just in America yet also in other countrys too where arnger came out in all kinds of ways stemmed by the fear of covid at first and that was seen most uniquely on commercial jets of all things.

  21. Such interesting comments about this subject. I think since the beginning of this crisis the mental health of everybody has been affected. People normally who have been able to control their emotions and behaviour in public, now the stress has been too much and we are all “losing it” occasionally.

  22. My mental health was at its best during quarantine last year because I could finally spend time working on myself and my health (cooking, running, reading, writing etc!) but now that the world has started turning again, I got so overwhelmed that I ended up losing my job and got myself in a worse place mentally. Wish my workplace didnt punish me for asking for an EAP!

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