Gambia: Mental Health Crisis Is the Other Epidemic!

22 April 2021

Amid the global coronavirus pandemic, another epidemic is raging: a mental health crisis.

Anxiety, depression and fear have reached new levels as we approach the one-year anniversary of the initial stay-at-home orders, which upended our lives with remote work, virtual school and a slew of retail, restaurant and other closures.

Life isn't what it was. Many people are isolated from family, friends and colleagues, not seeing loved ones in person because of the threat of contracting or spreading the highly contagious - and potentially deadly - virus. Mask-wearing, social distancing and frequent hand-washing are the new norms and pose even more barriers to human interaction.

Economic uncertainty, isolation, deep political polarization and festering social unrest are intensifying this growing malaise, which mental health experts warn must be addressed hand-in-hand with combating COVID-19.

Mental health includes our emotional, psychological and social well-being, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "It affects how we think, feel and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others and make healthy choices," and is critical through all stages of life.

And it's vital to our physical well-being.

When you're stressed or anxious, your immune system weakens. Your sleep is disrupted. Studies show Americans already are sleep-deprived, which further aggravates your physical stamina and threatens your health.

According to the CDC, mental illness - especially depression - increases the risk for a variety of physical health problems, such as stroke, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

While the CDC says that in any year, 1 in 5 Americans seek help for a mental illness, mental health experts suggest that figure now is 2 in 5 - or even higher.

"The mental health crisis we faced before [the pandemic] has gotten worse," said Ken Duckworth, M.D., chief medical officer of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). "We've seen a very substantial increase with the number of people trying to navigate the system" for help.

While social isolation is hard on adults, especially those who live alone, it's particularly tough on younger Americans.

Anxiety and depression rates have been increasing among children and young adults, which only have worsened during the pandemic. Mental health experts wonder about the long-term effects of isolation on their development.

Children are seeing their routines altered as their education has been disrupted or if they lose contact with friends and classmates. They might no longer be playing sports, going to in-person music lessons or participating in other cherished activities. If their parents are anxious, they pick up on the unease.

Young adults face an uncertain job market. Plans to move or live on their own often are put on hold. It's tough not seeing your friends and being surrounded by your support group, especially if you're single -- though that applies to any age.

Just like food and shelter, companionship is key to our well-being. We're social creatures, dependent on each other for support in all forms.

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