The Increasing Mental Health Crisis in the Wake of COVID

Tips and crisis resources are listed at the end of this article.

Mental health issues are more common than many people realize. In fact, roughly one in seven people have one or more mental health issues or substance use issues (Dattani et al., 2021). Mental health issues have been on the rise even prior to the pandemic. Between 1990 and 2019 it was estimated that there was a 48.1% increase in recorded cases of mental health problems (GBD Mental Disorders Collaborators, 2019).

COVID has significantly worsened the already-existing mental health crisis. According to a scientific brief released by the World Health Organization, anxiety and depression increased by 25% in the first year of the pandemic alone (WHO, 2022). One major explanation for the increase is the unprecedented stress and loneliness caused by social isolation. Fear of infection, illness, and death, along with the financial strain due to employment changes, are contributing factors. Additionally, world events such as school shootings, police brutality, and frequent instances of xenophobia have compounded already difficult conditions.

The Impact of Collective Trauma and Stress

The COVID-19 pandemic is not the first event to have a global impact, but in today’s age of technology and social connection, we have all been experiencing the full extent of this tragedy in real-time. While some individuals emerge from a traumatic experience relatively unscathed, others may be more deeply affected, and traumatic situations often alter a person’s capacity to cope with stress.
One of the biggest challenges during this time has been collective grief. When someone dies, we often grieve by coming together as a community to comfort one another through physical touch and presence. However, this ritual has been interrupted, leaving us feeling lost. Many of us have also been grieving our old lives, the milestones that have been interrupted, and anticipated events that are no longer happening or aren’t happening in the same way. It is important to acknowledge, feel, and process these losses.

Who’s Most Affected?

Children, adolescents, and young adults have long been disproportionally at risk of suicidal and self-harming behaviors (WHO, 2022). A study done in 2019 found a 54% jump in psychiatric visits among U.S. children between 2011 and 2015, including a 2 ½-fold increase involving adolescents who were suicidal (Kalb et al., 2019). However, despite this massive increase in need, the overall number of child inpatient units shrank by 19% between 2008 and 2018 (Cushing et al., 2021). “Every morning,” said Dr. Zakia Alavi, a child psychiatrist at LifeWays Community Mental Health in Jackson, Michigan, “there is like a hole in the pit of my stomach because I know I have no beds, and I am going to send at least three psychotic kids home on a wish and a prayer” (Erb & Barrett, June 2021). If they aren’t sent home, children are frequently kept in hospital emergency rooms for days on end due to lack of inpatient availability, all while receiving little to no serious treatment (Erb & Barrett, 1 July 2021). Treatment options and conditions have been further strained due to COVID restrictions and lack of beds.

Women and people of color have also been more severely impacted throughout the pandemic (WHO, 2022). This may be in part due to financial difficulties, virtual schooling, and trouble finding childcare, as well as the host of racially-motivated tragedies that have occurred within the past few years. Members of minority groups are typically more likely to face challenges accessing and paying for care, as well as overcoming stigmas on both a cultural and family level. Additionally, research and information regarding minority mental health is still severely lacking (Shushansky, 2017).

What Do Mental Health Professionals Have to Say?

Throughout the pandemic, demand for mental health services has surged. According to a survey of 1,320 therapists in 2021 (Parker-pope et al., 2021), 90% said that the number of clients seeking care is on the rise, resulting in a significant increase in calls for appointments and difficulty meeting client demand. Even before COVID, providers frequently reported months-long waitlists; with the increased demand, these waitlists have grown exponentially. Seventy-five percent of therapists surveyed reported an increase in wait times; nearly one in three clinicians said that it could take at least three months to get an appointment, if they happened to have any room for new clients at all. Furthermore, therapists themselves are being stretched thin. Although the survey didn’t ask specifically about therapist burnout, roughly 10% of respondents raised the issue on their own. Nearly one in five therapists reported having had to cut back hours due to home and life demands during the pandemic.

Although COVID introduced the widespread availability of telehealth options, the benefits are mixed. While more than half of therapists surveyed said that telehealth had made their jobs easier, citing increased access to therapy for clients, 28% said that virtual therapy had made caring for clients more difficult. With lockdowns making household privacy harder to find, therapists often describe their virtual sessions taking place in closets, cars, or bathrooms. Even if the client is able to find a private space, its proximity to others living in the same space can negatively impact client disclosure. Therapists have also reported telehealth making it more likely to miss important body cues of clients due to the confines of a webcam.

Unfortunately, many therapists suspect that the current high demand for services will remain at its current levels for some time, and 40% of therapists surveyed predicted that things would get worse in the coming months before things start improving. Although COVID cases and restrictions have begun to taper down, we are likely to continue to see the impact of the collective trauma of living through a pandemic, particularly among children and adolescents. It is important to recognize that we are all struggling, and we must give each other grace as we relearn how to navigate a post-pandemic world. While things won’t change immediately, the COVID pandemic has, in a sense, acted as a wake-up call. We must remain hopeful, and do our best to utilize the current crisis to spur further action toward greater access to care.

You’re Not Alone

  • Although it may feel overwhelming, there are still small things you can do while waiting on support.

Take care of your body: get enough sleep, eat well, exercise, and limit alcohol intake.
It may sound cliché, but supporting your body really can have a major impact. This doesn’t need to be a daunting task. Even if all you’re able to do is take a few minutes to dance to some music, moving your body in any way can help boost your mood and energy.

  • Schedule breaks and take time for yourself for rest and self-care.

Working until burnout isn’t helpful for anyone in the long run. Making sure you’re taking regular breaks to rest and relax will help you to recharge and prevent mental exhaustion. Remember that self-care doesn’t need to be complicated – it can be as easy as taking five minutes to sit outside and just breathe.

  • Find community by staying in touch with friends and loved ones.

The pandemic has made it much more difficult to maintain relationships, and for many, connecting with others is often the last thing on your mind when you’re feeling low. While taking time alone can be helpful, too much of it can negatively impact your mental wellbeing. Make sure to set aside time to connect with those you care about every week. Even something as simple as a check-in text or a quick phone call can make a difference.

  • Be conscious of your news consumption.

While it’s important to stay informed, too much awareness of current negative events can increase distress. Be sure to monitor how much time and energy you give to news media, and take a step back if it becomes too much.

  • Don’t feel ashamed or ‘broken’ for needing help or support.

Feeling is part of being human. It’s completely understandable to be struggling considering everything that has been going on. Reaching out to a loved one or a qualified professional is the first step towards self-understanding and recovery.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. This May, it is important to recognize and validate the struggles faces by millions of individuals with mental illness around the globe. Much more work still needs to be done, and it is only through awareness, acceptance, and advocacy that we will be able to achieve greater access to care and wellbeing for everyone.

Crisis Phone and Text Lines

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Call 1-800-273-8255
    • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Hotline: Call (800) 662-HELP (4357)
    • SAMHSA, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, operates a 24-hour helpline for people dealing with mental health issues. SAMHSA specialists can provide you with resources and the names of mental health professionals in your area.
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Hotline: Call (800) 950-NAMI (6264)
    • NAMI is a national mental health organization that offers a free hotline with trained specialists who can provide information, resources, and referrals to those who need mental health assistance. The organization is committed to returning calls within 48 hours from the time they are received.
  • Crisis Text Line: Text MHA to 741741
    • Crisis Text Line provides free, text-based support 24/7.
  • The Trevor Project: Call 1-866-488-7386 or text START to 678678.
    • A national 24-hour, toll-free confidential suicide hotline for LGBTQ youth.
  • National Domestic Violence Hotline: Call 1-800-799-7233 or text LOVEIS to 22522.
    • For any victims and survivors who need support.
  • United Way Hotline: Call 211
    • A free and confidential service that helps people across North America find local resources 24 hours a day, seven days a week. These resources include a range of services, including help locating local mental health support, finding food, paying for housing, accessing free child care, or other essential services.

Additional Resources

Written by Leah Wathen


Abramson, A. (2022, January). Children’s mental health is in crisis. Monitor on Psychology, 53(1).

Cushing, A. M., Bucholz, E. M., Chien, A. T., Rauch, D. A., & Michelson, K. A. (2021). Availability of

Pediatric Inpatient Services in the United States. Pediatrics, 148 (1), e2020041723.

Dattani, S., Ritchie, H., & Roser, M. (2021). Mental Health. Our World in Data.

Erb, R., & Barrett, C. (2021, June 30). Mental health crisis: Children at breaking point during COVID.

Bridge Michigan.

Erb, R., & Barrett, C. (2021, July 1). Emergency rooms confront ‘tidal wave of sadness’ among young

patients. Bridge Michigan.

GBD Mental Disorders Collaborators (2022). Global, regional, and national burden of 12 mental

disorders in 204 countries and territories, 1990–2019: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2019, Lancet Psychiatry, 9(2), 137 – 150.

Kalb, L. G., Stapp, E. K., Ballard, E. D., Holingue, C., Keefer, A., & Riley, A. (2019). Trends in Psychiatric

Emergency Department Visits Among Youth and Young Adults in the US. Pediatrics, 143(4), e20182192.

Kassens, A. L., Taylor, J., Rodgers, W. M. (2021, May 11). Mental Health Crisis during the COVID-19

Pandemic. The Century Foundation.

Lurie Children’s Blog (2021, May 27). Children’s Mental Health During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Ann &

Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.

Panchal, N., Kamal, R., Cox, C., & Garfield, R. (2021, February 10). The Implications of COVID-19 for

Mental Health and Substance Use. Kaiser Family Foundation.

Parker-pope, T., Caron, C., & Sancho, M. C. (2021, December 16). Why 1,320 therapists are worried

about mental health in America right now. The New York Times.

Shushansky, L. (2017, July 31). Disparities Within Minority Mental Health Care. National Alliance on

Mental Illness.

World Health Organization (2022, March 2). COVID-19 pandemic triggers 25% increase in prevalence

of anxiety and depression worldwide.