COVID-19 Depression: Impact on Mental Health

Published on: 15 Mar 2022
Clinically Reviewed by Minkyung Chung, MS, LMHC
woman holding head in hands

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc across the globe for a solid two years now, and the toll it’s taken on us isn’t purely in regards to our physical health. 

“At the beginning, it was alluring to work from home and complete a project wearing yoga pants and sipping tea, but the inability to socialize and go out created depressive symptoms due to the change in routine and lack of in-person interaction with others.”

Talkspace therapist Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S, LCSWC, CFTP

In hindsight, it’s no surprise that the pandemic triggered mental health issues. The impact that living through a pandemic has had on our collective mental health is staggering. Whether you’ve tested positive, a friend or family member has caught it, or you’ve lost a loved one to COVID-19 — even if you’re just struggling as a result of the last two years — if you’ve found yourself more stressed, anxious, or a little depressed, hear this: you’re not alone. What’s more, there’s help out there for you. 

If there’s one thing a global pandemic has taught us, it’s that we’re better together. Read on to learn how COVID depression may be impacting your mental health and to learn what you can do about it. 

“COVID-19 and depression are highly correlated. Some people experience depressive symptoms when diagnosed, others due to having to stay home to protect themselves, and some individuals have to deal with both being sick and at home.”

Talkspace therapist Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S, LCSWC, CFTP

Depression in COVID-19 Patients & Survivors

Whether you were recently diagnosed with COVID-19 or are one of the COVID 19 survivors, the depression you may be experiencing is not uncommon. 

First, it’s important to understand that things are not “normal” right now. Everything we’re going through during the pandemic has altered many aspects of our lives, which can be difficult for some people to process. Couple this reality with an actual diagnosis, and the stress and pressure can feel overwhelming at best, devastating at worst. 

“The changes involved are causing depression following COVID-19. Some people started to call it the “new normal,” but in reality, it was a set of new behaviors, thoughts, and expectations, and like most changes, it has been difficult to adapt to this change.”

Talkspace therapist Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S, LCSWC, CFTP

Is depression a side effect of COVID-19?

Though more studies need to be done to determine the long-term effects of depression due to COVID-19, some research is showing staggering results. In fact, more than half (52.4%) of people surveyed reported moderate to severe symptoms of major depression, even several months post-recovery. 

“It can be described as a side effect of COVID-19, but not everyone experiences it. Those individuals that have never felt depressed or who have the tools to deal with the symptoms of depression are less affected by it.” – Talkspace therapist Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S, LCSWC, CFTP

There seems to also be a link between the severity of COVID and depression. The same study found that those who suffered more severe symptoms during their bout with COVID are more likely to report depression symptoms after recovering from the virus. Further, COVID survivors seem to be more likely to report other mental health conditions as well, including:

What is causing depression following COVID-19?

While research continues, there are two ways it’s currently thought that COVID-19 can have an impact on mental health, including issues related to both:

  • Our immune response to the virus
  • Psychological stress stemming from a COVID-19 diagnosis

Immune response: Part of what we think we know about COVID-19 infections is that in response to the virus, our immune system produces chemokines and cytokines, along with other inflammation-causing reactions. Higher levels of a specific cytokine — known as T-helper-2 cell-secreted cytokines — appears to be found in those with more severe symptoms and cases of COVID. 

High levels of cytokines can result in, among a host of other complications, the following:

  • A disruption in blood-brain-barrier
  • Inflammation (nerves)
  • Nerve transmission impairment
  • Central nervous system issues

Each of the above conditions are directly linked to various mental health conditions, like depression. Additionally, research has also linked elevated systemic immune-inflammation levels to major depressive disorder. 

Psychological stress: Multiple psychological factors seem to play a part in depression during COVID. High levels of sleep disturbances, PTSD, anxiety, and depression have been commonly reported during and after COVID infections. These may all be the result of stress-related to:

  • Psychological reaction to contracting a potentially deadly virus
  • Social isolation and confinement 
  • COVID-19 stigma
  • Guilt or fear of spreading COVID to others

COVID-19’s Impact on Mental Health

Even if you haven’t contracted COVID-19, the toll the pandemic has taken on many people’s mental health cannot be denied. We’ve all been impacted on some level. Whether it’s fear for yourself, or worry for your kids and others, surviving the COVID-19 pandemic is something the majority of people seem to be struggling with. 

If you’ve experienced depression due to COVID-19 and related to any of the following, you’re not alone. Any of these can be factors that might be contributing to depression, anxiety, or a host of other mental health conditions.  

  • Fear of getting sick
  • General trauma about a deadly virus
  • Loss of a sense of community
  • Grief from the loss of a loved one
  • Grief about missing milestones and major life events
  • Loss of access to caregivers and basic medical needs
  • Food insecurity or housing insecurity
  • Additional financial concerns
  • Loss of a job or fear of a loss of a job

“As a therapist, I started to see the correlation between depression and COVID-19 in April 2020, when people realized that staying at home was no longer a benefit, but an obligation. The idea of not being able to see their family and friends or even go have dinner at a restaurant created feelings of sadness and, in some cases, severe depression that exacerbated throughout 2020 and 2021.”

Talkspace therapist Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S, LCSWC, CFTP.

How to Deal With Depression from the COVID-19 Pandemic

Depression during COVID statistics have increased substantially. Some research shows that the prevalence of depressive symptoms increased in every category of participants. 

The link between disrupted mental health and the pandemic is clear. This just confirms that research must continue if we’re going to combat further potential mental health consequences of COVID-19. 

Luckily, there are several things you can do to reduce depression from COVID-19. If you’re struggling with mental health as a result of the pandemic, try any of the following self-help techniques. Each can be good for both your mental health. 

  • Maintain a healthy diet and hydrate: Eating healthy and drinking enough water can do wonders for the body and mind. 
  • Stick to a healthy sleep schedule: Maintaining a healthy sleep schedule is important and can result in reduced anxiety and depression, better ability to focus, and increased energy levels.
  • Get outside for fresh air and sunshine: While it’s hard, given the situation, even a few minutes in the sun can help with mood stability.
  • Workout: Working out increases your endorphins, which are known to improve mood, reduce stress, and help you manage anxiety and depression.
  • Limit (or avoid altogether) tobacco, drugs, and alcohol: Though often seen as an escape, relying on drugs, alcohol, and tobacco can actually increase stress and anxiety.
  • Limit your screen time: Grab a book instead of your phone the next time you have downtime. Too much screen time can increase anxiety and disrupt your sleep.
  • Practice mindful meditation, yoga, or tai chi: Ancient practices like meditation, yoga, and tai chi are all known to be an effective mental reset and can do wonders for managing depression. Try downloading a meditation app or subscribing to a workout platform that offers yoga or tai chi programs.
  • Keep a routine: Whether you realize it or not, your body and mind both thrive from a routine. You don’t need to be rigorous about it, but making an effort to follow some sort of schedule, especially in the days of remote work, can help pull you out of depression.
  • Avoid social media and news media: We live in a time where doom scrolling is a favorite pastime, and it can be hard to avoid. However, nothing good comes from overexposure to social and news media these days. Take a break from both and instead try journaling, going for a walk, or meeting a friend for coffee.
  • Set priorities and stick to them: We all do better when we have priorities in place. Though there is some freedom in having a go-with-the-flow attitude and lifestyle, setting priorities in terms of what’s important can help when you fall into bad habits that may be contributing to your depression.
  • Keep yourself busy: If you struggle with having downtime, pick up a hobby or have something on hand to do when you’re bored. Reading, knitting, going for a jog, or journaling are all great ways to occupy your time.  
  • Focus on positivity: The power of positivity is proven. Use mantras, gratitude checks, or journals to keep your mindset positive and let go of the negative.
  • Practice random acts of kindness: Studies show that doing nice things for others helps improve our mood, too.
  • Make personal connections: Part of the struggle with depression from COVID-19  comes from isolation. If you find that being alone is impacting your mental health, make an effort to make or reestablish personal connections with people in your life. 
  • Seek therapy: If you just can pull yourself out of your depression, it might help to talk to a therapist or doctor.  

“You are not alone. Thousands of people are dealing with depressive symptoms caused by COVID-19. Look for ways to feel better such as journaling, staying connected to those you love, and talking to a professional who can guide you.”

Talkspace therapist Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S, LCSWC, CFTP

When It’s Time to Seek Help

Times are tough right now, and despite anxiety and stress being a normal reaction to any difficult phase of life, there comes a point when it might be time to get help. There’s no right or wrong way to respond to a crisis like COVID-19. That said, if you’re finding that your COVID depression and COVID anxiety are altering your ability to function normally day in and day out, it’s important that you reach out and ask for help today from a mental health care professional. You don’t need to struggle alone, Talkspace is here for all of your online therapy needs.

Sources:

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2. Gil-Etayo F, Suàrez-Fernández P, Cabrera-Marante O et al. T-Helper Cell Subset Response Is a Determining Factor in COVID-19 Progression. Front Cell Infect Microbiol. 2021;11. doi:10.3389/fcimb.2021.624483. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fcimb.2021.624483/full. Accessed February 12, 2022.

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6. Ettman C, Abdalla S, Cohen G, Sampson L, Vivier P, Galea S. Prevalence of Depression Symptoms in US Adults Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic. JAMA Netw Open. 2020;3(9):e2019686. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.19686.http://jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?doi=10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.19686. Accessed February 12, 2022.

7. Cascio C, O’Donnell M, Tinney F et al. Self-affirmation activates brain systems associated with self-related processing and reward and is reinforced by future orientation. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2015;11(4):621-629. doi:10.1093/scan/nsv136. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4814782/. Accessed February 12, 2022.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

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