Coronavirus Taking Mental Health Toll

The novel virus befuddled the medical community until it began showing its own defining characteristics. Symptoms include a cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fever, chills, muscle pain, sore throat and loss of taste or smell. Young or old, those with underlying illnesses appear to be especially vulnerable.

The mental illness toll is not easily measured, and could take decades to fully understand. Eventually, countermeasures to the disease, like avoiding other humans as likely carriers of the disease, isolating and social distancing, could have lasting mental effects.

That could be considered a second wave of the coronavirus.

These casualties can be difficult to quantify, but the Kaiser Family Foundation already finds that nearly half the people in the United States believe the coronavirus crisis is harming their mental health.

The Washington Post reported that a poll conducted by the foundation found that 45% of adults say the pandemic has affected their mental health, and 19% say it has had a “major impact.” The rates are slightly higher among women, Hispanic adults and black adults, according to the survey.

Those edgy adults say they’re scared, anxious, depressed and struggling to sleep through the night.

“It’s not surprising given all the other huge numbers surrounding the pandemic in terms of joblessness, and social distancing, which can equal social isolation,” says Kathy HoganBruen, a Washington clinical psychologist specializing in anxiety. “And people dying. People getting sick…. All of these big numbers are going to have an outsized impact on our mental health collectively.”

The Kaiser Family Foundation poll found 57% of adults were worried they could be exposed to the virus because they can’t afford to miss work and stay home.

It’s normal to be anxious and worried in an emergency

Mental health experts say it’s normal for people to be anxious and worried in a highly disruptive health emergency.

“It’s easy to understand why anxiety would spike during a crisis,” writes Mike Bebernes in Yahoo News. “Wall-to-wall news coverage and changing messages from political leaders can cause stress and uncertainty in average people. For the estimated 40 million Americans with underlying anxiety disorders, these triggers can bring about overwhelming feelings of fear and lack of control.” That can lead people to make unhealthy decisions.

“We’re already seeing signs that mental health problems are rising exponentially,” writes Kelly Posner Gerstenhaber in A McKinsey & Company study found that 35% of Americans surveyed felt anxious or depressed. Many reported resorting to binge drinking and the use of illegal drugs. “Alarmingly, calls to suicide hotlines across the country have spiked 800%,” Gerstenhaber wrote.

While social distancing and home-isolation are the best ways to combat covid-19, observes Gerstenhaber, isolation leads to loneliness and depression, which play a role in more than half of suicides.

The pandemic could have profound and potentially long-term impacts on mental health, reports The Guardian, requiring thorough and coordinated research.

Prof. Ed Bullmore, head of the department of psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, is co-author of a report saying research so far has been small-scale and fragmented.

“Our key message is that covid is likely to have major impacts on mental health now and into the future and we need to start thinking about that immediately,” he said. Writing in the journal Lancet Psychiatry, Bullmore and a team of colleagues say that priorities include the need for real-time monitoring of mental health issues, both across the general population and at-risk groups, as well as healthcare professionals.

Among other priorities, it is important to explore ways people have found to cope with the pandemic, and ways to support mental wellbeing, particularly in vulnerable groups as well as healthcare workers.

Doctors and nurses struggle with mental health

Doctors and nurses also struggle with mental health, reports USA Today. The psychological risks hospital staffs face during the coronavirus pandemic came tragically into focus, it reported, when a 49-year-old Manhattan emergency room doctor died by suicide after treating covid patients and becoming infected.

Workers at Mount Sinai hospitals in New York City treated more than 2,000 covid patients and hundreds of them became infected. About 20 workers died of the disease.

“Things cannot go back to business as usual after covid-19,” said Dr. Aisha Terry, a Washington, D.C., emergency physician. “The mental health of our emergency physician workforce has to be addressed in a definitive way.”

The Mayo Clinic suggests exploring self-care strategies for those experiencing stress, anxiety, fear, sadness and loneliness.

“Self-care strategies are good for your mental and physical health and can help you take charge of your life. Take care of your body and your mind and connect with others to benefit your mental health,” advises the clinic. Here are some tips:

Take care of your body:

Get enough sleep. Go to bed and get up at the same time each day. Stick close to a typical schedule, even while staying at home.

Participate in regular physical activity and exercise including movement, such as dance or exercise apps.

Eat healthy. Choose a well-balanced diet. Avoid loading up on junk food and refined sugar. Limit caffeine; it can aggravate stress and anxiety.

Avoid tobacco, alcohol and drugs. Smokers might be at higher risk because covid affects the lungs. Alcohol reduces coping skills.

Limit screen time. Turn off electronic devices for some time each day, including 30 minutes before bedtime.

Relax and recharge. Set aside time for yourself, including deep breathing, tai chi, yoga or meditation. Soak in a bubble bath, listen to music or read or listen to a book.

Take care of your mind:

Keep your regular routine. Keep consistent times for meals, bathing and getting dressed, work or study schedules and exercise. Set aside time for activities you enjoy.

Limit exposure to news media. Constant news about covid-19 from all types of media can heighten fears about the disease. Limit social media that may expose you to rumors and false information.

Stay busy. A distraction can get you away from the cycle of negative thoughts that feed anxiety and depression. Enjoy hobbies you can do at home. Doing something positive to manage anxiety is a healthy coping strategy.

Focus on positive thoughts. Choose to focus on the positive things in your life, instead of dwelling on how bad you feel. Consider starting each day by listing things you are thankful for. Maintain a sense of hope.

Use your moral compass or spiritual life for support.

Set priorities. Don’t become overwhelmed by creating a life-changing list of things to achieve while you’re home. Set reasonable goals each day and outline steps you can take to reach those goals. Give yourself credit for every step in the right direction.

Connect with others and build support and strengthen relationships:

Make connections. Find time each day to make virtual connections by email, texts, phone or social media. Enjoy virtual socializing and talking to those in your home.

Do something for others. Find purpose in helping the people around you, by emails, texts or calls. Check on your friends, family members and neighbors, but follow government recommendations on social distancing and group meetings.

Support a family member or friend. This could be through electronic devices, the telephone or sending a note to brighten the day.

Get help when you need it:

Hoping mental health problems such as anxiety or depression will go away on their own can worsen symptoms. To get help, you may want to:

Call or use social media to contact a close friend or loved one.

Contact a minister, spiritual leader or someone in your faith community.

Contact your employee assistance program if your employer has one, and get counseling.

Call your primary care provider or mental health professional to ask about appointment options to get advice and guidance.

Contact organizations such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness or the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

If you’re feeling suicidal or thinking of hurting yourself, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Continue your self-care strategies.

You can expect your current strong feelings to fade when the pandemic is over, says the Mayo Clinic. But stress won’t disappear from your life when the health crisis of covid-19 ends. Continue self-care practices for mental health and increase your ability to cope with life’s continuing challenges.

Then dystopia might regain its popularity as a far-off menacing place favored by fans of spooky movies.


The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or

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About cbukro

Casey Bukro was inducted into the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame in 2008 for outstanding contributions to Chicago journalism, after a 45 year career with the Chicago Tribune. Bukro retired from the Tribune in 2007 as overnight editor. He had pioneered in environmental reporting and in 1970 became the first full-time environment specialist at a major metropolitan newspaper in the United States and covered major developments on that beat for 30 years. He won the newspaper’s highest editorial award in 1967 for a series on Great Lakes pollution. The Society of Professional Journalists awarded Bukro its highest honor, the Wells Key, in 1983 for writing that organization’s first code of ethics. He is a past president of SPJ’s national ethics committee and a past president of the Chicago Headline Club. Bukro graduated with bachelor and master degrees from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. In 1998, he received the Northwestern University Alumni Association’s alumni service award for 17 years of volunteer service to the university. He has lectured in environmental journalism and journalism ethics at Northwestern, the University of Chicago, DePaul University, Loyola University Chicago, Columbia College, Columbia University and others. Before joining the Tribune staff, Bukro worked at the former City News Bureau of Chicago and the Janesville Gazette, Janesville, Wis.

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