COVID pandemic creates spike in mental illness

SEATTLE — According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the COVID pandemic has about 40% of the population struggling with mental health issues.

UW Medicine is busy caring for patients. “We see a lot of anxiety and fear, PTSD, depression ... some increase in substance use and addiction problems,” said Dr. Jürgen Unützer, Chair of the Psychiatry Department at the University of Washington, caring for patients at UW Medicine. “There are those of use who were struggling with preexisting mental health and addiction problems, and for that group, I think this has been a real high-risk situation,” said Unützer, “There are those of us who were doing okay before the pandemic, and we’ve experienced a level of stress and trauma that’s created new mental health and addiction problems.”

At Seattle Children’s, the inpatient psychiatry and behavioral medicine unit is full.

“Over the past year we have seen a pretty sharp increase of youth presenting to our emergency department in crisis for a number of mental health reasons: suicide, aggressive behavior, that kind of thing,” said Dr. Alysha Thompson, Clinic Director of the Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine Unit.

The inpatient unit only has 41 beds. Last June, they had 50 children a week arriving in crisis in the emergency department. In February and March this year, there were three times that many each week.

While they’ve seen a slight dip in the last two weeks, Thompson worries about what’s next.

“May tends to be our busiest month in the inpatient unit, and COVID’s blown up all of our trends, trends don’t exist in the same way they did before. So we don’t know what to predict coming into these next few months, which tend to be one of our high points,” explained Thompson.

When it comes to children, the sharpest increase in suicide is in 10- to 14-year-olds, according to Thompson.

She says many parents don’t talk to their children about suicide because they’re afraid it will give them the idea. She says children who are suicidal, or would become suicidal, are already thinking about it, and not talking about it leads to more stigma and increases isolation.

New research shows COVID-19 can actually trigger mental illness in adults. A study found 13% of patients hospitalized for COVID developed new psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety, and psychosis, according to The Lancet Psychiatry.

“Like hearing things, seeing things, that kind of thing,” said Thompson. “In a small number of cases has been found after having COVID, some people are developing psychosis at an age it’s not typical to develop those symptoms,” said Thompson.

Instead of onset in the mid-twenties, they’re seeing it in COVID patients in their 30s and 40s.

And while the vaccine will stop the virus, many of the mental health impacts will remain.

“I do think we will have a big challenge, because the trauma that’s been caused, it will have a long tail. There are people who will be struggling with this for the next year, or two, or three,” said Unützer.