Although the overall level of anxiety has decreased from last year's APA poll, "the degree to which anxiety still reigns is concerning," APA President Jeffrey Geller, MD, told Medscape.
The results of the latest poll were presented at the American Psychiatric Association 2021 Annual Meeting and based on an online survey conducted March 26 to April 5 among a sample of 1000 adults age 18 years or older.
Serious Mental Health Hit
In the new poll, about 4 in 10 Americans (41%) report they are more anxious than last year, down from just over 60%.
Young adults age 18-29 (49%) and Hispanic/Latinos (50%) are more likely to report being more anxious now than a year ago. Those 65 or older (30%) are less apt to say they feel more anxious than last year.
The results show that Americans are more anxious about family and loved ones getting COVID-19 (64%) than about catching the virus themselves (49%).
Concern about the safety of family and loved ones has increased since last year's poll (conducted in September, rising from 56% then to 64% now. Hispanic/Latino individuals (73%) and Black individuals (76%) are more anxious about COVID-19 than White people (59%).
In the new poll, 43% of adults said the pandemic has had a serious impact on their mental health, up from 37% in 2020. Younger adults are more likely to report serious mental health effects.
Slightly fewer Americans said the pandemic affects their day-to-day life now as compared to a year ago, such as problems sleeping (19%, down from 22%), difficulty concentrating (18%, down from 20%) and fighting more with loved ones (16%, down from 17%).
The effects of these problems are showing as well. Among adults, 17% said they were drinking more alcohol or taking more drugs than normal, up from 14% a year ago. Also, 33% of adults (40% of women) report gaining weight during the pandemic.
Call to Action
More than half of adults (53%) with children said they are concerned about the mental state of their children and almost half (48%) said the pandemic has caused mental health problems for one or more of their children, including minor problems for 29% and major problems for 19%.
More than a quarter (26%) of parents have sought professional mental health help for their children due to the pandemic.
Nearly half (49%) of parents say their child received help from a mental health professional since the start of the pandemic; 23% received help from a primary care professional, 18% from a psychiatrist, 15% from a psychologist, 13% from a therapist, 10% from a social worker, and 10% from a school counselor or school psychologist.
More than 1 in 5 parents said they had trouble finding a mental health specialist with available appointments.
"This poll shows that even as vaccines become more widespread, Americans are still worried about the mental state of their children," Geller said in a news release.
"This is a call to action for policymakers, who need to remember that in our COVID-19 recovery, there's no health without mental health," he added.
Resiliency a Finite Resource
Samoon Ahmad, MD, professor in the Department of Psychiatry at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, said it's not surprising Americans are still suffering more anxiety than normal.
He believes there are several reasons why anxiety levels remain high. One is something he's noticed among his patients for years. "Most people struggle with anxiety especially at night when the noise and distractions of contemporary life fade away. This is the time of introspection," he explained.
"Quarantine has been kind of like a protracted night because the distractions that are common in the so-called 'rat race' have been relatively muted for the past 14 months. I believe this has caused what you might call 'forced introspection,' and that this is giving rise to feelings of anxiety as people use their time alone to reassess their careers and their social lives and really begin to fret about some of the decisions that have led them to this point in their lives," said Ahmad.
The other finding in the APA survey — that people are more concerned about their loved ones catching the virus than they were a year ago — is also not surprising, Ahmad said.
"Even though we seem to have turned a corner in the United States and the worst of the pandemic is behind us, the surge that went from roughly November through March of this year was more wide-reaching geographically than previous waves, and I think this made the severity of the virus far more real to people who lived in communities that had been spared severe outbreaks during the surges that we saw in the spring and summer of 2020," Ahmad said.
"There's also heightened concern over variants and the efficacy of the vaccine in treating these variants. Those who have families in other countries where the virus is surging, such as India or parts of Latin America, are likely experiencing additional stress and anxiety too," he noted.
While the new APA poll findings are not surprising, they still are "deeply concerning," Ahmad said.
"Resiliency is a finite resource and people can only take so much stress before their mental health begins to suffer,,” Ahmad said.
"Overcoming this kind of anxiety and reacclimating ourselves to social situations is going to take more time for some people than others, and that is perfectly natural," said Ahmad, founder of the Integrative Center for Wellness in New York City.
"I don't think it's wise to try to put a limit on what constitutes a normal amount of time to readjust, and I think everyone in the field of mental health needs to avoid pathologizing any lingering sense of unease. No one needs to be medicated or diagnosed with a mental illness because they are nervous about going into public spaces in the immediate aftermath of a pandemic, " Ahmad said.