Dr. Sanam Hafeez Reveals How Much COVID-19 Impacted The Mental Health Of Adults - Exclusive

The long-lasting impact of COVID-19 has been nothing short of a calamity – grieving for lost loved ones, struggling with unemployment, going bankrupt, managing to salvage necessities like food and clothes after hitting poverty — the list goes on. Besides the amplified repercussions of COVID-19 witnessed in social, economic, healthcare, and education sectors, we also saw massive alarming consequences of this tragic health crisis on the mental well-being of both young and elderly people.

"At the start of the pandemic, anxiety and stress levels grew drastically as everyone entered something unknown and potentially life-threatening." These are the words of Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a leading NYC Neuropsychologist and Director of Comprehend the Mind, who, in an exclusive interview with Health Digest, explored the various ways COVID-19 affected the mental health of adults and how the new struggles intensified during the pandemic. According to World Health Organization (WHO), dealing with these drastic changes is an ongoing challenge, causing severe mental health outcomes such as anxiousness, depression, and even post-traumatic stress.

Mental health issues at the beginning of the pandemic

At the beginning of the pandemic, the general population had a rapid spike in anxiety and depression levels. People were worried about their future and the lives of their loved ones amidst unknown circumstances. Dr. Hafeez tells us, "According to a survey by the World Health Organization (WHO), there was an increase in anxiety and depression by 25% in the first year." The situation particularly worsened in the first year of COVID-19 during quarantine because people were suddenly forced to practice isolation and stop social activities. 

The consequences are quite similar to what happened during the Ebola outbreak, per a 2021 study published in Biomedical Central Psychology, when people struggled to deal with social distancing. In many households, domestic violence and substance abuse cases emerged as well. "Amid the pandemic, a survey done by the CDC in June 2020 reported that 13% of adults reported new or increased substance use due to coronavirus-related stress, and 11% of adults reported thoughts of suicide in the past 30 days," says Dr. Hafeez. She further believes that since, in many ways, we have still not fully recovered from or even reached the end of the pandemic, it's likely that the mental health impacts may exist for a while.

Terrifying ways COVID-19 affected adults' mental wellbeing

Despite every effort to try to control the spread of the coronavirus, thanks to worldwide vaccination programs, the general population still struggles with the aftermath of the pandemic and the continuous feeling of uncertainty. This has led to a visible spike in anxiousness and unease among the masses. Dr. Hafeez states, "Many people report that they now suffer from psychological distress and show symptoms of anxiety, depression, and even post-traumatic stress disorder." Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a serious mental health illness that causes deep feelings of fear after experiencing a shocking or traumatic incident (via National Institute of Mental Health – NIMH). 

During the pandemic, PTSD symptoms were common in the general public and healthcare staff. Moreover, Dr. Hafeez tells us, "There have been worrying signs of an increase in widespread suicidal thoughts and behaviors, particularly among healthcare workers." According to a 2021 study published in Frontiers in Psychology, this was mostly because of a lack of sufficient protective gear and exhaustion from working on the frontline during tough times. The lack of necessary social interactions to reduce depression also counts as a major factor in the detrimental impacts of PTSD.

The reasons for negative mental health impacts

According to Dr. Hafeez, there are several reasons behind mental unrest during the pandemic. She believes "facing uncertainty for the future" is among the main reasons people are so deeply anxious about what's yet to come. People have been forced to give up their schedules and daily routines, which can be really detrimental to mental peace. Hence, the population is generally stressed out about what to expect and is caught in a flurry of "what-ifs." 

Dr. Hafeez also shares that unemployment has been a viable factor that caused an increase in mental illnesses. A 2021 study published in Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Services Research revealed that because of the difficulties in retaining jobs, many people developed new behavioral conditions while others dealt with pre-existing but more severe mental disorders. Additionally, isolation adds to the negative effects. Being socially cut off while obligated to stay at home and unable to physically meet up with people causes a deep feeling of disconnectedness, leading to added stress. Similarly, Dr. Hafeez reports that the lack of proper mental and physical health resources, limited healthcare facilities, and lack of childcare services has promoted feelings of anxiety and depression in the adult population.

Signs of mental health issues in the post-pandemic era

Dr. Hafeez reveals that it's first necessary to recognize the circumstances that might play an integral role in worsening mental wellbeing. For example, she reports that some people may have experienced more detrimental impacts due to certain factors, including those who have experienced the loss of a loved one due to COVID, those who have struggled with significant changes in life because of the widespread illness, those who have survived a higher and deeper level of isolation for a long time, and those living in a country or region with limited or poor resources. 

Dr. Hafeez also reports that adjusting to the new changes is as challenging as returning to our old life. She says, "The pandemic likely causes many issues such as anxiety, depression, hopelessness, fear, and perhaps anger. When things re-opened, many experienced re-entry anxieties. At first, semi-seclusion seemed odd, but society had gotten used to a quieter way of living. When people had to emerge from a cocoon, some could not wait to get out, while others did so with trepidation, almost like someone re-learning how to walk and talk again." Going back to the norm is not as easy as it may seem for the population, per Dr. Hafeez. People are anxious in the post-pandemic era about moving on as they struggle with "finding their purpose in life after months of having downtime to ponder what living a meaningful life represents."

How can adults improve their mental health after the pandemic

Dr. Hafeez encourages people to "remember what brought you joy pre-pandemic and re-engage in those activities" as it's the perfect way to get back into the norm and leave the stressful days behind. She also advises adults not to "let fear of the next strain stop your life." It's necessary to "reconnect with friends or family," especially your parents and siblings, as talking with loved ones can help eliminate stress. Similarly, Dr. Hafeez advises people to do whatever they can to get back to their routines, which is critical for improving mental health. For example, "if you were someone who got weekly manicures, resume that beauty ritual; if you worked out 3 days a week, resume that practice." 

It's also necessary to pay attention to your love life. She reminds people to jump back into the dating field and set up profiles on dating apps to move out of that isolated feeling if they're single. "If your mental health has not "rebounded" since the pandemic, seek professional help. Keep the hobbies or other healthy activities you engaged in to keep busy during the time you were sheltering in place. Reevaluate your geographic location. Is where you are living the best place for you? Although you can't run from your problems/issues, make sure that your location serves you best," says Dr. Hafeez.

Dr. Sanam Hafeez PsyD addresses some of today's common issues such as body image, social media addiction, relationships, workplace stress, parenting, psychopathology, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), learning disabilities, attention and memory problems, and abuse. She often shares her credible expertise with various news outlets in New York City and frequently appears on CNN and Dr.Oz. Connect with her via Instagram @drsanamhafeez or www.comprehendthemind.com.