Washington Dept of Health: We’re still not seeing the biggest mental health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic


OLYMPIA, Wash – The mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic will likely be felt for months and beyond, according to a briefing by the Washington Department of Health released Monday.

The DOH and other mental health specialists briefed the Senate Behavioral Health Subcommittee.

The report says the state can “reasonably expect” that between two and three million Washingtonians will experience behavioral health symptoms over the next three to six months. Depression will be the most common, followed by anxiety and acute stress.

Among the findings, the stark reality that millions of Washingtonians will experience depression, anxiety and PTSD because of the pandemic and those symptoms likely won’t peak until 6-9 months after the initial outbreak.

DOH research shows that the pandemic has caused a “surge in behavioral health symptoms across the state.” That peak in impact of those symptoms “will likely coincide with a potential second wave of infections, a pattern consistent with previous pandemics.”

The report shows most of the impacts come from isolation and quarantine, rather than exposure, illness or threat to physical health.

Researchers are also looking at the associated problems of substance abuse. The report says “after the impact phase, approximately 20% of individuals will struggle with alcohol abuse… the majority will be an exacerbation of pre-existing problematic behavior.”

The state has created a website with resources dedicated to helping people find the mental health and crisis resources they need. You can find the link to those resources here.

Domestic violence will also likely continue to increase. The study says “violence against women increases after every type of emergency or disaster. Rates of intimate partner violence and child abuse have increased significantly in Washington State.” The report says weekly surveys of Washington law enforcement show that domestic violence is 17% higher than it was in the same period of 2019.

Researchers attribute that rise in substance abuse and domestic violence to a loss of control. “When individuals feel loss of control along with associated stress, worry and fear, it is very common for those feelings to be expressed outwardly in the form of frustration and anger.”

Underlined and in bold, researchers highlight “For many people in Washington State, it is likely that the summer months of 2020 will include a significant sense of frustration and higher rates of substance abuse than might otherwise typically be present.”

The report says ethnic and racial minorities and those with limited access to healthcare “are experiencing disproportionately more behavioral health impacts than their counterparts.” Also, healthcare workers, law enforcement officers, educators and people recovering from critical care may experience more of these impacts as well.

The Department of Health warns about an increased risk of suicide, likely peaking between October and December. That prediction is based on other cycles of disaster response. Seasonal affective disorder can exacerbate that risk. Suicide and drug overdose rates are highly influenced by unemployment; the study says that for every 1% increase in the unemployment rate, there is a 1.6% increase in the suicide rate.

If Washington’s 15.4% unemployment rate is sustained, the DOH says this could result in an additional 217 deaths by suicide in Washington.

The experts then predict that these patterns should return to baseline levels 12-14 months after the initial outbreak, assuming the potential second wave can be stabilized.

The report says that the typical response to disaster is resilience, which can be “intentionally taught, practiced, and developed for people across all age groups. That can be increased by focusing on developing social connections, big or small; reorienting and finding a sense of purpose; becoming adaptive and psychologically flexible; and focusing on hope.

You can read the state’s full analysis at this link.

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