The Long Psychological Reach of COVID-19

How the pandemic has affected, and is still affecting, our mental health

In March of 2020, the world changed completely, almost overnight. As the novel Coronavirus – also known as COVID-19 – began to spread with unparalleled rapidity across the globe, infecting hundreds of thousands and then millions of people, the majority of nations and communities locked themselves down in order to limit the spread of the virus. Terms like “social distancing” suddenly became commonplace. People found themselves suddenly stuck in the house for days on end. Those who still had jobs to do outside the house were faced with the constant risk of infection. Digital communication had to serve as a replacement for the typical interactions of day-to-day life, and a massive amount of global production instantly stopped. 

Now, finally, after what seems like an eternity of different variants, strains, lockdowns, vaccines, and boosters, most places are beginning to emerge from the constraints of this Coronavirus pandemic. Businesses have now opened up, individuals are going back into the office for work, and students are in school consistently once more. Although it may seem as though life is returning to normal, the effects of this pandemic will be more long-lasting than our memory of closed shop fronts.

As people around the world begin to pick up their lives in the wake of the pandemic, many therapists, coaches, and healthcare professionals are concerned about how COVID-19 affected and is still affecting mental health on a global stage. Here, we explore some of the major long-term effects that the Coronavirus pandemic has had on the field of treatment and recovery.

Isolation and Shared Grief

The biggest and most obvious life change around the world as the Coronavirus spread was the sudden and urgent need to keep away from other people. Because the virus was previously unknown to scientists, there was no concrete information available on how or why it was transmitted among individuals, only that it was being transmitted often and quickly. To attempt to stop the spread, governments and public bodies ordered individuals to stay home and avoid social contact with others. This led to a prolonged period of isolation for many; some were able to isolate themselves with family or friends, but many others were trapped by themselves in their homes for months on end.

Research has consistently shown that chronic isolation is extremely damaging to physical and mental health. Dr. Joel Salinas, a behavioral neurologist at Harvard University, has demonstrated a link between isolation and dementia. Isolation has also been associated with elevated risks for heart attack, stroke, chronic inflammation, depression, stress, and anxiety. [1] In terms of trauma-informed treatment for mental health, understanding how the prolonged periods of isolation have shaped negative feelings, or else worsened existing conditions, is critical as we begin to emerge from the pandemic. 

There is also the matter of shared grief. According to the World Health Organization, there have been a total of 6,226,324 recorded deaths worldwide as a result of the pandemic. At its peak spreading point in January of 2021, COVID-19 was ending the lives of over 100,000 human beings per day. [2] This represents a shocking scale of loss, and the collective grief experienced by families, communities, and entire nations who have lost so many must be considered. As individuals emerge from the pandemic seeking treatment for their feelings of stress, anxiety, or depression, therapists and healthcare professionals should also take into account the effects of prolonged grief disorder on the collective psyche. [3]

Substance Use and Abuse

Grief and loss of human connection have not been the only detrimental effects of COVID-19 on society’s wellbeing. One of the major concerns coming out of the various lockdowns and strains of the pandemic for healthcare professionals has been the increase in substance use. There is an abundance of research to indicate that COVID-19 related traumatic stress symptoms have been linked to substance abuse [4], that social isolation intensified the already catastrophic drug overdose and substance use disorder epidemic [5], and that increased household disruption due to the pandemic was linked with alcohol and illicit substance use in adults. [6]

The Critical Importance of Community

As the world begins to adapt to the new normal after the worst of the pandemic appears to be subsiding, many individuals will continue to grapple with the psychological effects of the unprecedented virus which spent two years ravaging societies across the world. As therapists and healthcare professionals, it is imperative that we understand how the sweeping social changes brought about by COVID-19 have affected and will continue to affect mental health and substance abuse in diverse populations. 

One thing the pandemic made abundantly clear to all was the importance of community to our well-being, and we must focus on this as we begin to rebuild our social structures in the wake of the chaos. Finding meaningful connections with others in our lives, participating in our local and global communities, and opening ourselves up to communicating about the difficulties we have experienced as a result of COVID-19 are the keys to our individual and collective recoveries from such a significant global trauma.


[1] Harvard Health Publishing, (2021). How isolation affects memory and thinking skills. Harvard Medical School, May 1.

[2] WHO Coronavirus (COVID-19) Dashboard, (2022). Overview. World Health Organization.

[3] Szuhany KL, Malgaroli M, Miron CD, Simon NM. Prolonged Grief Disorder: Course, Diagnosis, Assessment, and Treatment. Focus (Am Psychiatr Publ). 2021 Jun;19(2):161-172. doi: 10.1176/appi.focus.20200052. Epub 2021 Jun 17. PMID: 34690579; PMCID: PMC8475918.

[4] Taylor S, Paluszek MM, Rachor GS, McKay D, Asmundson GJG. Substance use and abuse, COVID-19-related distress, and disregard for social distancing: A network analysis. Addict Behav. 2021 Mar;114:106754. doi: 10.1016/j.addbeh.2020.106754. Epub 2020 Dec 3. PMID: 33310690; PMCID: PMC8164919.

[5] Cisneros, I. E., & Cunningham, K. A. (2021). Covid-19 interface with drug misuse and substance use disorders. Neuropharmacology198, 108766.
[6] Dodge, K. A., Skinner, A. T., Godwin, J., Bai, Y., Lansford, J. E., Copeland, W. E., Benjamin Goodman, W., McMahon, R. J., Goulter, N., Bornstein, M. H., Pettit, G. S., & Bates, J. E. (2021). Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on substance use among adults without children, parents, and adolescents. Addictive behaviors reports14, 100388.

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