stressed older woman rubbing eyes. Much has been said about the economic stress caused by closing businesses and keeping employees at home, and the mental health effects are becoming apparent as well. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Mental health issues are a concern for about 50 percent of Americans as the COVID-19 health crisis continues, a new report from the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) has found. Although increased stress and feelings of isolation may not be surprising at a time when so many are sheltering at home and avoiding personal contact, the study gives more details on what populations are affected and how economic impacts are also factoring into the mental health of Americans.

Related: Amid coronavirus pandemic, don't forget about mental health benefits

According to a tracking poll by KFF, 45 percent of adults across the U.S. said that worry and stress related to the COVID-19 pandemic are hurting their mental health. Conducted in the last week of March, the poll found that 47 percent of those sheltering in place reported negative mental health effects resulting from worry or stress related to COVID-19. In comparison, only 37 percent of respondents who were not sheltering in place reporting negative mental health impacts from COVID-19.

Sheltering at home is increasing stress

The study noted that the U.S population was already feeling stressed and isolated, even before the pandemic. One in five Americans reported having a mental illness in the past year, and deaths from drug overdoses have been increasing. In 2018, nearly a third (32.5 percent) of American adults reported feeling worried, nervous, or anxious on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis, the KFF study said.

COVID-19 is adding to those issues, the study suggests. The poll found that among those sheltering in place, 21 percent said worry or stress related to the pandemic has had a major negative impact on their mental health, while another 27 percent said it had a minor negative impact.

The impact may be larger for households with children or adolescents, the study suggests. With schools closed, family routines are disrupted, interaction with peers is limited for children, and stress in the household is likely to increase.

"Existing mental illness among adolescents may be exacerbated by the pandemic, and with school closures, they will not have the same access to key mental health services," the study said. "[The] KFF Tracking Poll shows that among parents with children under the age of 18, nearly three out of five (57 percent) women say that worry or stress related to the coronavirus has negatively impacted their mental health, up from 36 percent of women in the KFF tracking poll conducted two weeks prior. [The poll] also finds that women with children under the age of 18 are more likely to report negative impacts to their mental health than their male counterparts (57 percent versus 32 percent, respectively)."

Job losses and economic woes also having an effect

Much has been said about the economic stress caused by closing businesses and keeping employees at home, and the mental health effects are becoming apparent as well. The KFF poll found that 54 percent of Americans who lost income or employment reported negative mental health impacts from worry or stress over coronavirus, compared to 40 percent of those who had not lost income or employment. In addition, 26 percent of people experiencing job or income loss reported major negative impacts on their mental health, compared to 15 percent of those who had not experienced job or income loss.

"People with low incomes are also more likely to report major negative mental health impacts from worry or stress over coronavirus," the study said. "Twenty-six percent of those making less than $40,000 reported experiencing a major negative mental health impact, compared to 17 percent of those with incomes between $40,000 to $89,000, and 14 percent of those making $90,000 or more."

The study concludes by noting that the barriers to mental health care, already a problem for many Americans, are likely to be made worse by the pandemic—at a time when the need for mental health treatment is increasing. These barriers include insurance issues and shortages of mental health professionals. The increased use of telemedicine will help, the report noted, but more resources need to be available for that solution, as well.

"As policymakers continue to discuss further actions to alleviate the burdens of the COVID-19 pandemic, data will be required to measure its growing effect on mental health and substance use," the report said. "The increased need for mental health and substance use services will likely become a long-term problem even as new cases and deaths due to the novel coronavirus subside."

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