Pandemic is taking terrible toll on mental health, with links to road deaths, overdoses and homicides

anxietygal-300x200Not all grievous injuries are apparent to the eye, as anyone who has experienced catastrophic illness or injury can attest. And now we’re learning a lot more about the hidden costs — mental, emotional, social, and spiritual — inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Reporters Emily Baumgartner and Russ Mitchell of the Los Angeles Times surfaced intriguing points of view on what has now become normalized but widely aberrant behaviors in the age of Covid. They did so, as they dug into the reasons for the unacceptable increase in road fatalities at a time when the public, overall, drove less and many people had open byways. The deadly toll that took in 2020 was expected to, but did not, reverse in 2021.

It got worse — and the reasons why need urgent attention, sources told the newspaper, which reported:

“Experts say that behavior on the road is likely a reflection of widespread feelings of isolation, loneliness, and depression. ‘We might decide: What does a seatbelt or another beer matter, anyway, when we’re in the middle of a pandemic?’ said Shannon Frattaroli, a researcher at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The rise in motor vehicle deaths lines up with other pandemic-era trends: Alcohol sales have soared, drug overdoses have set new records, and homicides have seen their biggest increase on record. Covid-19 marks ‘a sea change in psychology,’ said Frank Farley, a professor of psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia, who views reckless driving as a form of rebellion — or what he calls ‘arousal breakout … You’ve been cooped up, locked down, and have restrictions you chafe at,’ he said. ‘So, if you can have an arousal breakout, you want to take it.’”

There are more flashing lights to warn people about disturbing behavioral shifts that started with the pandemic, persist now, and may be getting entrenched, the reporters found:

“Fatalities are up in both cities and rural areas. They’ve spiked on both highways and backroads. They’ve risen during the night and the day, weekdays, and weekends. They climbed in every age group between 16 and 65. They rose in 41 states — with South Dakota, Vermont, Arkansas and Rhode Island experiencing the biggest increases. Still, some patterns have emerged. Chief among them is that the death rate for black people rose more than three times faster than the death rate overall, a disparity that could reflect a deeper sense of despair in the poorer communities hit hardest by the pandemic. Frattaroli wondered whether it was related to a disproportionate number of black people in the essential workforce, including delivery drivers who are ‘paid by how fast you can move.’ In one of the clearest indications of rising recklessness, fatal accidents involving just one vehicle also rose disproportionally. The data also show an outsized increase in deadly accidents involving speeding, illegal substances, or a failure to wear a seatbelt.”

A road safety expert also offered an important insight to the newspaper as to why — even as employment has rebounded, people have money in their pockets, and public health measures have advanced the nation along the road to pandemic recovery — the world may still feel not just uncertain but brutal:

“Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Assn., a Washington nonprofit representing agencies nationwide, suggested that people’s disregard for themselves and others on the road is part of a national decline in civility that accelerated during the pandemic. ‘Anecdotally, we hear from governors’ offices around the country that it’s a symptom and a sign of the overall lack of consideration we’re showing for other citizens, whether it be wearing masks, or not getting vaccinated, or how we drive,’ he said. ‘It’s very aggressive. It’s very selfish.’”

Acting out and being out of control, as well as engaging in (self-)destructive behavior, has become too common and daunting, indeed: Vivek Murthy, who as surgeon general serves as one of the nation’s top medical officers, captured recent headlines when he issued a 53-page report and warned publicly that, as the New York Times reported, “young people are facing ‘devastating’ mental health effects as a result of the challenges experienced by their generation, including the coronavirus pandemic.” The newspaper also noted this:

“The report cited significant increases in self-reports of depression, anxiety, and emergency-room visits for mental health challenges. In the United States, emergency room visits for suicide attempts rose 51% for adolescent girls in early 2021 as compared with the same period in 2019. The figure rose 4% for boys. Globally, symptoms of anxiety and depression doubled during the pandemic, the report noted. But mental health issues were already on the rise in the United States, with emergency room visits related to depression, anxiety, and related issues up 28% between 2011 and 2015.”

While Murthy and other experts have zeroed in on big problems with young people and their mental well-being, others have pointed out that women, parents, essential workers, educators, health personnel, and many more have experienced pandemic-related emotional, spiritual, and mental health crises, too.

At this time of peak need, however, mental health providers themselves are dealing with their crisis of overload. They were stretched thin and too often undervalued before the pandemic, and they cannot cope with the huge demands now.

Not good. In my practice, I see the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services,  the damage that can be inflicted on them by auto, truck, and motorcycle wrecks, and their struggles to access and afford safe, efficient, and excellent health care, including mental health support. This has become an ordeal due to the skyrocketing complexity, uncertainty, and cost of treatments and prescription medications, too many of which turn out to be dangerous drugs.

As people struggle to know now what to do in a pandemic that has lasted longer than many may have expected— and as coronavirus variants further complicate what already was a stressful situation — we all may need to take a deep breath. We need to step back from the holiday frenzy that too many folks may have launched themselves into, with elaborate gift-giving, travel, and celebratory plans and scurrying about.

The world, by taking matters step by step and following the recommendations of real medical experts with experience and evidence-based advisory, has not collapsed. We may be unhappy with continued crimps on our lives, including higher prices for, maybe, fewer goods.

But this year’s end is a unique chance for all of us to reflect on the deeper meaning of a season that many great faiths tell us is rooted in gratitude, giving, compassion, and consideration for others, especially those in need. We may not jet to far-flung corners of the planet by 2021’s end. That fancy bauble or beeping electronic gizmo may not be in the house until next year. Many, many of us, though, have much to celebrate — we and our loved ones are alive and well. More of us than ever have jobs again.

The pandemic could teach us the importance of valuing family, friends, and activities we adore. We don’t need excess intoxicants (booze or grass or pills), outrageous conduct, or profligate spending to tell us we’re here — and, we hope, ready for the best of what’s next. Maybe that gets here faster and better if we’re more patient, calmer, considerate for others (notably for those in need), hopeful, and sticking close to home and cherishing those we love. If you feel you need help, especially mental health care, don’t tough out the holidays. Reach out, including to trusted family, friends, and others. We can have great healthy holidays and a terrific new year — we may need to work our way to these fine goals.

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