The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a decline in mental health for people affected by the resulting economic recession. It then creates obstacles for people with mental health and substance use disorders from accessing proper health care.

That now affects around 40% of adults in the US, who report symptoms of anxiety and depression, compared to only around 10% of adults from January to June 2019. As you can see, there has been a significant increase that can’t be easily ignored.

According to a health tracking poll from July 2020 by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 36% of adults reported sleeping difficulties, 32% had a loss of appetite, 12% had increased alcohol or substance use, and 12% had to worsen of chronic conditions. All of this was due to stress due to the pandemic.

As the pandemic continues, this is only expected to get worse. More people will likely develop poor mental health outcomes due to isolation, job loss, tense relationships, and so on.

Let’s take a look at the statistics, as well as their implications brought about by the pandemic.

Comparing Mental Illness and Substance Abuse Before and During Pandemic

The Kaiser Family Foundation analyzed data from the Census Bureau’s ongoing Household Pulse Survey on the health and economic impacts of the pandemic.

This analysis shows that young adults aged 18 to 24 have taken a major hit with school closures and loss of income, which may contribute to poor mental health, with 56% of them reporting symptoms of anxiety and/or depression.

Young adults have also reported more substance abuse (25% vs. 13% of older adults) and suicidal thoughts (26% vs. 11%). Due to job loss or lower income, adults have reported higher rates of mental illness symptoms compared to those who have not experienced job or income loss (53% vs. 32%).

Women with children have also reported greater instances of anxiety and/or depression compared to men with children (49% vs. 40%). Communities of color have also reported instances of anxiety and/or depression compared to white communities (48% Black and 46% Hispanic vs. 41% White).

Essential workers face additional challenges, including greater exposure to the coronavirus compared to non-essential workers. This has led to higher likelihood of experiencing anxiety and/or depression among essential workers compared to non-essential workers (42% vs. 30%), substance use (25% vs. 11%), and suicidal thoughts (22% vs. 8%) during the pandemic.

It’s clear from these numbers that instances of mental illness and substance abuse have only increased among adults during the pandemic, and it remains so as the coronavirus continues to linger and remain dangerous.

Prevalence of Mental Illness and Substance Abuse During Pandemic

As recent as January 2021, 41% of adults have reported anxiety and/or depression, showing that this number has remained relatively the same since Spring 2020. This leads to concerns of chronic mental illness and substance abuse, as well as suicide ideation.

Suicide rates have been on the rise even before the pandemic, and they only worsened during it. Drug overdose deaths also increased, especially with the start of the pandemic-related lockdowns. Mental illness and substance abuse have also been prevalent among adults in poor general health, including those with chronic illnesses.

Around 18% of those who received a COVID-19 diagnosis were later diagnosed with a mental health disorder. Older adults and immunocompromised individuals who are at higher risk of COVID-19 have also been reported to experience increased levels of anxiety and depression during the pandemic.

These figures are seen as much higher compared to those from 2018, wherein over 48,000 Americans died by suicide. Drug overdose deaths also increased, which were already four times higher in 2018 compared to numbers in 1999 due to the opioid crisis.

The pandemic has affected mental health through the widespread social isolation required to mitigate the spread of the disease. Social isolation has been found by a broad body of research to cause poor mental and physical health, which then lead to reduced lifespans and a greater prevalence of mental and physical illnesses.

The KFF Health Tracking Poll in late March 2020 found during the start of the lockdowns that those sheltering-in-place have reported impact to mental health due to stress and anxiety brought about by the circumstances.

Past epidemics have been found to induce general stress, which leads to significant issues in mental health and substance use. Not only does the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbate them, but they also make it more challenging to access the proper health care needed to address them.

What these statistics tell us that not only has the pandemic caused more mental illness and substance abuse both directly and through the measures meant to address it, but also exacerbates conditions already set in place. The US already had ongoing mental health and substance use crises before the start of the pandemic, and it has only gotten worse.


The COVID-19 pandemic presents both short and long-term implications for both mental health and substance use. This is especially true for high-risk groups with people who have mental health disorders and/or face significant obstacles to accessing health care.

While vaccines are now being distributed across the country and all over the world, perhaps the end of the COVID-19 pandemic is near. However, its consequences and that of the measures put in place to mitigate the spread of the disease will likely linger for the foreseeable future.

As history teaches us, the mental health impact of disasters like pandemics tends to last longer than the physical impact. Much of what we face once the COVID-19 scare is a thing of the past is its economic effects, as well as the after-effects of prolonged social isolation.

According to a May 2020 analysis, there may be additional deaths from suicide, alcohol, and substance abuse that may occur as far forward as 2029. It doesn’t help that the pandemic has caused disruptions to mental health services throughout the world.

To minimize such consequences, it’s important for us to prioritize mental health and substance use services even when the pandemic is finally over and done with.