Lifting the veil

Removing the stigma from mental illness during the COVID-19 pandemic

While the CDC guidelines to stay healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic – wash your hands, wear a mask, social distance – typically focus on physical health, mental health is now coming to the forefront of the conversation. Social distancing is one effective way to help curb the spread of the virus. But the isolation and anxiety that can come up while sheltering in place is starting to take its toll on many people. While there is hope on the horizon thanks to the COVID-19 vaccine, the negative impact the pandemic has had on our mental health will likely last for some time.

Despite what we know and continue to learn about the prominence of mental health conditions, it is often shameful for people to admit to themselves and others that their mental health is suffering and they need to access care. Society might view that person as “weak,” “lazy,” or “lacking morals” if they fall into a depression or use substances to cope. However, mental illness is not a character defect – it is a real medical condition that requires care, compassion, and treatment from a healthcare professional. Below you will learn how the pandemic has affected mental health, why there is a stigma against mental illness, and some ways to take care of your mental health.

What is the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health?

Many aspects of the pandemic are linked to an increase of mental health conditions. These include:

  • Loss of in-person connection
  • Isolation
  • Stress of child or eldercare
  • Fear of getting sick or dying
  • Fear of a loved one getting sick or dying
  • Loss of job or income

Research shows that in June 2020, 40% of people in the U.S. reported an elevation of a mental health condition or substance abuse. Symptoms identified in the study include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Trauma or stressor-related symptoms
  • Starting or increasing substance use
  • Suicidal ideation

Furthermore, the CDC identifies other symptoms of mental health disturbance related to the pandemic. These can include:

  • Feelings of fear, sadness, worry, anger, grief, or frustration
  • Changes in appetite or energy
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Inability to concentrate or make decisions
  • Physical issues, such as stomach pains, skin rashes, or headaches

Demographics that showed dramatic increases in mental distress include young adults, racial/ethnic minorities, essential workers, and unpaid adult caregivers. These groups are often at a higher risk of exposure to COVID-19, have reduced access to quality and affordable health care due to socioeconomic status or discrimination, have had their school/life plans altered, and are at greater risk for job loss.

While mental health help and hotlines are available, there can be many barriers to reaching out for help. One of these barriers is the stigma against mental illness.

Why is there a stigma against mental illness?

Social pressure to look good, perform well in school, go to college, get a good job, and make a decent living can all add up, taking their toll on mental health. With all this pressure to be on top of it all, there leaves little space for caring for our mental health. Many people might think that all they have to do it “snap out of it” or “think positively.” They might think it’s “weak” to have a mental health condition. Thus, people might be ashamed to reach out and admit that they need help. This can be common for many people, which is why education that destigmatizes mental health and provides access to care is so important.

Gender biases can also negatively affect mental health and perpetuate stigma when people behave outside gender norms – disproportionally affecting women and LBGTQ people. Of course, as mentioned, not living up to social pressure can adversely affect anyone. So even cisgender, heterosexual men can also be affected if they do not live up to societal expectations of the a “typical male.” Research shows that while women typically have higher rates of depression, men typically have higher suicide rates.

Cultural norms and stereotypes can also fuel mental health stigmas. For example, cultural ideals that perpetuate a thinness as the “ideal body” can fuel negative body image issues and eating disorders. Social media is one area that is rapidly fueling this kind of negative thinking and disordered behavior. Instead of addressing the negative thoughts themselves, stigma is attached to the body itself. In fact, according to research, the stress and anxiety associated with COVID-19 is manifesting for some people as negative body image in both men and women.

Institutional racism is another factor that perpetuates negative mental health. Discrimination in healthcare and educational settings, police brutality, anti-immigrant sentiment, and unhealthy environments all disproportionally affect people from BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities. Additionally, BIPOC are experiencing an increase in psychological stress due to the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 is having on their communities. These factors combined can mean that BIPOC are at an increased risk of negative mental health. Yet there continues to be a stigma against seeking mental health care for people within BIPOC communities.

What can I do to take care of my mental health?

First, acknowledge that it takes courage to seek support for your mental health – especially in the face of social stigma and competing priorities. While taking care of your mental health is important all the time, it is especially necessary during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some things you can do on your own to support your mental well-being are:

  • Limit your exposure to the news
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Get adequate sleep and exercise
  • Take time for self-care
  • Practice mindfulness and meditation
  • Talk to a friend, loved one, or faith-based leader about your feelings

Additionally, there are several free hotlines and services that can help you if you need to speak with someone right away. Many are tailored to certain populations, such as veterans, the LGBTQ community, and BIPOC. Speaking with someone who shares your cultural identity and experience may help you feel seen and understood.

You might also want to reach out to your primary doctor, also known as a primary care physician or PCP, who can do an initial intake assessment and make a referral to a mental health care specialist. Also, depending on your health plan, you might have access to virtual mental health services through Teladoc or Magellan.

Mental health is just as important as your physical health. Learning to cope with stress can help you become more resilient and healthy in the long run. It’s important to recognize that many of us are in different places on our mental health journey, and symptoms can vary based on age, gender, biology, race/ethnicity, exposure to trauma, and many other factors. While asking for help might feel daunting at first, lifting the veil that shrouds mental health can help reduce stigma, help you feel better, and set an example for your loved ones to also get the care they might need.

Find mental health support

Get help managing your health care, including your mental health