When Covid-19 hit the United States, what began as a cautious response turned into a complete lockdown of the country. The economy and job market were initially hit the hardest with millions losing their jobs and businesses around the country closing. But the human impact would be the largest toll taken by the virus. The obvious tragedy of the pandemic has been the tremendous loss of life across the nation. But beyond that is the human suffering that loss of work and isolation have injected into society. The loss of work, money, loved ones, and social interaction is creating the conditions for a mental health crisis in our society felt by all, and could be particularly dangerous for our Veteran community already vulnerable to mental health struggles.
The local and state government responses to the Covid-19 pandemic have led to a dramatic rise in several disturbing metrics which all suggest Covid-19 restrictions are having severe negative impacts on the public’s mental health. According to a report published by the Commonwealthfund.org, key indicators of mental health deterioration have been on the rise :“Local reports cite increases in domestic violence calls and opioid overdose. Crisis hotline use is also rising, with some reports of staggering spikes.” One of the most alarming indicators is the rise in call-ins to suicide and mental health hotlines. ABC 7 reported that at the onset of the pandemic “[c]alls to a suicide and help hotline in Los Angeles went up more than 8,000% from February to March because of the novel coronavirus.” In addition to mental health emergencies, models are projecting that tens of thousands of people are expected to have died due to “deaths of despair” related to the social and economic effects of the pandemic response. A study published by The Well Being Trust, estimates that “[a]longside the thousands of deaths from COVID-19, the growing epidemic of ‘deaths of despair’ is increasing due to the pandemic—as many as 75,000 more people will die from drug or alcohol misuse and suicide.”
The adverse mental health effects on the general population due to Covid-19 and pandemic policies are perhaps even more pronounced in the Veteran community, which has statistically suffered from worse mental health in general. A paper published by the Bob Woodruff Foundation argued that “emergent trauma, loneliness due to social isolation, and unplanned job or wage loss” due to the pandemic response could be creating a “perfect storm” of adverse mental health effects in the Veteran community. For instance, the paper found that pre-pandemic, “over one-third of post-9/11 veterans report challenges paying their bills,” and that up to 14% of American Veterans work in “five industries most likely to witness immediate layoffs due to COVID-19.” For many Veterans, this economic hardship can be the triggers for destructive behavior that compounds a decline in mental health.
Economic destruction can be the most immediate side effect of the pandemic and its assault on the mental health of Americans, but the social disruption can be a far more insidious problem that won’t go away. A survey published by Stars and Stripes in September reveals that well over half of all Veterans are suffering from increased loneliness since social distancing requirements came into effect: “About 60% of veterans surveyed reported feeling disconnected from their family, friends, or community. Half of veterans agreed their mental and physical health has worsened since social distancing themselves.” But the survey also uncovered another disturbing reality of the effects of the pandemic and social distancing amongst the 28,282 post-9/11 veterans they polled: “Of those, 30% reported having suicidal thoughts in the past two weeks and virtually the same amount said they are having difficulty getting mental health care.”In a 2018 study published by the VA and cited by NBC News, Veterans have suffered from higher suicide rates compared to the general population, pre-pandemic: “Veterans are twice as likely as civilians to die by suicide, the Department of Veterans Affairs said Monday… Veterans make up more than 14 percent of all suicides, although they account for only 8 percent of the total population.” Whether Veteran suicide rates, combined with the effects the pandemic and social distancing, will be statistically higher in the Veteran community than the general public remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that the reality of life under the pandemic is leading to conditions which are highly toxic to the mental health resiliency of all Americans, but Veterans in particular.
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