The new coronavirus pandemic has triggered a spike in prescriptions for depression, anxiety and insomnia in a looming mental health pandemic that could explode in America if steps aren’t taken to prevent it, one of the world’s leading psychiatrists on mood disorders has warned.
Dr. Roger McIntyre, who is currently a professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at the University of Toronto and head of the Mood Disorders Psychopharmacology Unit at the University Health Network in Toronto, told The Christian Post in a recent interview that the deadly coronavirus — which has already killed more than 47,000 people nationwide and infected close to 900,000 — is already taking its toll on Americans mentally.
“This is the greatest threat on our mental health in our lifetime. A combustible mix of fear, insecurity and quarantine,” said McIntyre, who also serves as the director of the Canadian Rapid Treatment Center of Excellence. "We’re very concerned about an increase in suicide, depression, stress and alcoholism [but] with the appropriate social, medical and individual response we can prevent the [mental health] curve.”
In their latest report on the use of medications to treat three of the most common mental health conditions — depression, anxiety and insomnia — Express Scripts, America’s largest pharmacy benefit management organization, showed how the coronavirus has already been impacting America’s mental health.
Express Scripts research shows that the number of prescriptions filled per week for antidepressant, anti-anxiety and anti-insomnia medications increased 21 percent between Feb. 16 and March 15, peaking the week ending March 15, when the virus was declared a pandemic.
“It’s understandable. Americans have grown increasingly anxious as they’ve seen this global pandemic upend their lives within a very short time," the report said. "This analysis, showing that many Americans are turning to medications for relief, demonstrates the serious impact COVID-19 may be having on our nation’s mental health.”
Prescriptions for anti-anxiety medications, which rose 34.1 percent from mid-February to mid-March, including a week-over-week spike of nearly 18 percent during the week ending March 15, showed the greatest spike. The number of prescriptions filled for antidepressants and sleep disorders also increased 18.6 percent and 14.8 percent, respectively, from Feb. 16 to March 15.
Evidence from a previous study also shows that during the previous recession, for every 1 percent increase in unemployment there was a corresponding 1 percent increase in suicide.
Over the last five weeks, over 26 million people in the nation have filed for unemployment as lockdowns nationwide forced businesses to close.
Without the appropriate support systems to help people cope such as income assistance and counseling services, McIntyre predicts many people are likely to be overwhelmed in a potential mental health pandemic but insists it can be avoided.
“It’s not a done deal that all these terrible things are going to happen. We can get ahead of it. It’s no different than if I told you there’s a tornado coming at you. It will be there in six hours. You would say ‘thanks for letting me know; I can make the appropriate interventions to protect myself,’” he said.
“We have good reason to believe that this tsunami of mental health problems is frankly already here … let’s get ahead of it and let’s get these things in place now to try and boost the resiliency of people so that they [don’t] succumb to suicide and other stress-related issues like depression,” he said.
According to the Express Scripts report, nearly one in five U.S. adults experienced a mental health condition in 2018, and the rate of psychological disorders has risen dramatically among younger people in the past decade. From 2008-2018, the overall prevalence of mental illness increased 8 percent, from 177 to 191 per 1,000, and potentially disabling mental illness by 24 percent, from 37 to 46 per 1,000.
Mental health conditions were also recorded as the costliest health conditions in the U.S., with a price tag of more than $200 billion annually on the healthcare system, and more than $193 billion in lost earnings per year.
Mental health issues were also noted as the most common cause of hospitalizations for people ages 45 and younger. Within a month of being discharged from the hospital, some 13 percent of mental health discharges are readmitted.
“Not only do mental health conditions affect a person psychologically, they also negatively impact their physical health. People with mental health conditions are at higher risk for a wide range of diseases, including heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease,” explains the study. “People who have both a mental health condition and a chronic disease have two to three times higher health care costs than those with only a chronic disease.”
McIntyre, who is also director for the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, a comprehensive resource for more than 23 million people in the U.S. who live with mood disorders, said since the coronavirus pandemic began, his organization has also seen a significant spike in calls to their crisis lines.
“We’re hearing from 24 hour crisis lines, suicide hotlines, the calls have gone up 500 percent to 1,000 percent. ... We are seeing a massive increase in calls to our phone centers as well as to our website looking for information on how to cope so I think we’re seeing plenty of evidence starting to emerge [of the looming mental health pandemic],” he said.
He urged people who may not know where to look for support or how to respond to a mental health crisis to reach out to organizations like churches or the DBSA for help.
“The literature around religiosity and spirituality is very clear. Church attendance, for example, has been shown to reduce suicides in a robust way. It decreases mental illness, it decreases drug and alcohol issues and so we really encourage that,” he said.
“Find interests. Keep yourself purposeful, keep yourself engaged. Taken together, the social part to this that is the political, social contributions to society, the medical establishment, we strongly believe that you can prevent a lot of this curve.”