Mental health in a pandemic

(NEW YORK) — May is Mental Health Awareness Month, established in the United States in 1949 by the Mental Health America organization, previously known as the National Association for Mental Health. It is a way to raise awareness and has continued the fight to break the stigma. 


Millions of Americans are impacted, with many suffering in silence, and according to John Hopkins Medicine, about 1 in 4 adults aged 18 and older suffer from a mental disorder. 


The COVID-19 pandemic complicated matters, forcing some to face the stressful challenges of lockdowns and isolation from friends, family, and co-workers. People faced a crisis, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration says calls to its Disaster Distress Helpline saw an 890% increase in April 2020, compared to April 2019

Americans also appearing to turn to drug abuse during the pandemic, with opiod deaths up almost 50% in some parts of the country according to a September 2020 report from SAMHSA in comparison to 2019. 

The coronavirus pandemic also sidelined athletes in their respective sports. The National Basketball Association suspended its season on March 11, 2020, after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the virus. The National Hockey League would follow suit a day later and pause its league, just weeks before the season was scheduled to end before the playoffs. The Major League Baseball season was delayed almost 4 months before scheduling a shortened 60-game season with no fans at ballparks. 

Both the NBA and NHL returned in bubbled-off environments with no fans. The NBA completed its season at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida. Meanwhile, the NHL played in two hub cities: Edmonton and Toronto. 


However, these isolated locations took a toll on their mental well-being. Current Philadelphia 76ers big-man Dwight Howard, spoke up about his depression during his title run with the Los Angeles Lakers. Los Angeles Clippers All-Star Paul George revealed he battled with anxiety and depression, saying it left him in a dark place, a feeling many Americans share.


According to a survey from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 38% of respondents reported that they had experienced symptoms and depression from April 2020 through February of this year. 


NBA Champion and Cleveland Cavaliers veteran Kevin Love has been outspoken and one of the more prominent faces in mental health awareness after suffering a panic attack during a game against the Atlanta Hawks on November 5, 2017. Love opened up in an essay on The Players’ Tribune about his struggles with mental health.


“Success isn’t immune to depression.. you see that this doesn’t discriminate and so many people have come out and talked about it,” Love told ABC News’ Perspective podcast. “I think that community aspect of it and understanding that more and more people are willing to talk about it and that stigma continues to be beaten down because it… that’s where I feel like I’ve been able to settle in and continue on this journey to try and help people as best I can.”


Listen to the rest of this past week’s highlights from the Perspective podcast.

He launched the Kevin Love Fund in 2018, in one of his first steps in raising awareness and promoting physical and mental wellness. One of the many beneficiaries are Bring Change To Mind, whose mission is focused on ending the “stigma and discrimination surrounding mental illness.” 

Love also partnered with company Genomind in April on a Mental Health Map focused on helping people begin their wellness journey and understanding how their genetic predispositions impact their mental well-being. 

“You get to learn your genetic makeup… your mental health is a function of four different things. Its lifestyle, its environment, its experiences. But we’ve never had the gene part actually down.” Love went on to tell ABC News, “You get to work with an expert clinician. You get to break down exactly what these genes mean.”

Listen to the full ABC Audio interview with Kevin Love

Suicide is one of the leading causes of death in the U.S. and coping with the pandemic has been difficult for many Americans. The share of emergency visits for suicide attempts and drug overdoses rose 26% and 36% from March through October 2020 compared to the previous year according to an analysis of CDC data published in February 2021. 

“People are struggling. Especially throughout these last 12 months with covid and social injustice… the election… it’s really been a lot for people in every walk of life,” Love said.

Mental health struggles are also impacting student-athletes, who’ve returned to sports as well with the NCAA Division I football season, and the Men’s and Women’s basketball tournament bubbled off in Indianapolis and San Antonio. Norfolk State Men’s basketball coach Robert Jones called it “the nicest jail you could probably be in.”

ABC News Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton told ABC News’ Perspective podcast, “If you just take the adolescent age group from a developmental standpoint. We learn in medical school that interaction with their peers, social interaction, and exposure is critical in their development. We’re talking about emotional and psychological and social development. So, you can’t take an athlete… in that age group and isolate them just because they’re with other athletes. They’re still feeling isolated themselves.”

Listen to the full ABC Audio interview with Dr. Jennifer Ashton

The NCAA conducted a well-being survey of about 25,000 student-athletes for Fall 2020, and it showed that both men and women considered lack of access to sport, COVID-19 health concerns, and academics as the top factors negatively impacting their mental health. 


Student-athletes had to adjust to virtual learning, with 25% of respondents who learned remotely full-time reporting they felt overwhelming anxiety, 23% felt very lonely, and 21% felt sad. The numbers dipped slightly for the student-athletes who had a hybrid learning environment or only attended classes in-person. 

As the parent of a Division I ice hockey player, Dr. Ashton witnessed firsthand what the pandemic can do to a young athletes mental health, “I’ve watched how this pandemic has affected her and her teammates and I can tell you that the impact has been significant… taking away their ability to play their sport in the way that they are used to playing it is literally like taking away their oxygen.”


Finding the resources needed can be difficult. The Health Resources and Services Administration estimated that as September 2020, 119 million Americans live in mental health provider shortage areas. HRSA also reported that mental health providers in these areas were only able to adequately meet about 27% of the need. 

You or someone you know should still try and seek out available services and treatments.

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