Mental health effects of the pandemic are likely to persist, Duke experts say

Sophie Kasakove
·2 min read

A year of isolation, economic recession and grief has taken its toll on people’s mental health that will likely persist even as vaccination becomes more widespread, Duke University experts said in a live virtual event Wednesday.

The panel included Anna Gassman-Pines, an associate professor of public policy and psychology who studies the effects of welfare and employment policy on child and maternal well-being, Robin Gurwitch a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences who studies the impact of trauma on children and families, and Jennifer Plumb-Vilardaga a professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences who focuses on addiction.

“The pot is boiling and it is boiling over,” Gurwitch of the cumulative stress of the pandemic, the economic crisis and political unrest. She said that stress can lead to behavioral issues for children and put them at greater risk of health problems and unemployment later in life. Lack of access to mental health services for children learning remotely has aggravated these impacts.

A big source of stress for families during the pandemic has been child care and virtual learning. In her research on the effects of the pandemic on service workers, Gassman-Pines found that over 10% of parents surveyed have dropped out of the labor force, often because of the demands of caring for young children and students learning remotely.

Many were affected by multiple stresses associated with income loss, and of not having enough money for basic necessities. She said these stressors were eased early on by the first stimulus package, but began to severely affect families once those funds dried up.

The pandemic has also created obstacles for accessing mental health care and treatment services for people who struggle with substance use.

“It’s very easy to isolate because we are asked to isolate,” said Plumb-Vilardaga. “People have estimated that not just the mental health impact of this pandemic but also the substance use impact of this pandemic will persist for years afterwards because of the lack of access to resources.”

But she said many support groups for substance abuse in North Carolina are now operating virtually, as are many therapists.

The expansion of telehealth during the pandemic is a source of hope, the panelists said, increasing access for previously underserved areas, like rural parts of the state.

“We truly have learned a lot about our pivot into telehealth and the benefits of having that resource, but it has to be covered and it truly needs to be expanded,” said Gurwitch.

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