Nearly four years after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. population is still experiencing “collective trauma,” according to a new nationwide survey released this week by the American Psychological Association (APA).
The results of the APA’s Stress in America 2023 survey polled more than 3,185 adults across the country about their physical and mental well-being since the pandemic began in early 2020. The findings point to a nation that continues to grapple with the deep psychological imprint left by the pandemic that killed over 1 million Americans and upended daily life.
Spike in Chronic Health Conditions
The survey found that adults between the ages of 35 and 44 reported the highest spike in chronic health conditions since the pandemic began, rising from 48% in 2019 to 58% in 2023, according to the APA’s press release.
This midlife age group also saw the biggest jump in mental heath illnesses, led by anxiety and depression, rising from 31% in 2019 to 45% in 2023.
While adults 18-34 still had the highest overall rate of mental illness at 50%, the spike among 35-44 year olds points to the indelible impact the pandemic had on this demographic.
According to APA CEO Arthur C. Evans Jr., PhD, the survey shows the country is still reeling from the psychological distress of COVID-19.
“The loss of more than one million Americans and massive disruptions in our workplaces, schools and the broader culture have taken their toll on the mental health of many,” Evans said in a statement.
High Stress, But Many Downplay It
Despite the fact that 66% of adults reported having a chronic physical illness, 81% still rated their physical health as “good, very good or excellent.”
A similar disconnect was found regarding mental health. While 37% of adults reported having a diagnosed mental health issue, 81% still said their mental health was “good, very good or excellent.”
“Although we appear to be back to normal since the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans are experiencing greater levels of stress and reporting higher levels of physical and mental health challenges,” Evans said.
However, the APA release noted that many survey respondents tend to “downplay” their stress levels. For example, 67% said their problems aren’t “bad enough” to feel stressed about. Another 62% said they avoid discussing their stress with others to not burden them.
Parents Most Impacted
Parents of children under 18 seemed to experience some of the highest stress levels, with 48% saying their stress is “completely overwhelming” on most days, a big jump from 26% in 2019.
The share of parents saying their stress keeps them from functioning normally also rose dramatically from 20% before the pandemic to 41% in 2023.
Financial and Economic Woes Take Toll
Along with health impacts, financial and economic issues rose sharply for adults 35-44, with money-related stress rising from 65% to 77% since the pandemic began. Concerns related to the economy jumped from 51% to 74% for this group.
Compared to pre-COVID times, the survey found parents were more likely to experience financial strain at home (46% vs 34%) and fights over money increased by 28%. Parents also felt more “consumed” by money worries, spiking from 39% in 2019 to 66% in 2023.
Dr. Marc Siegel, clinical professor of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center, said the rise in illnesses and stress for 35-44 year olds stems directly from the pandemic’s disruptions.
“The rise in chronic illness and mental illness among adults aged 35 to 44 is clearly due to the stress and anxiety provoked by lockdowns and mandates, fear of the virus and the rampant divisiveness,” Siegel told Fox News Digital.
He said this age group was likely most worried about their futures amid business closures and economic uncertainty.
Lifestyle Changes During COVID Exacerbate Problems
On top of pandemic-related issues, Siegel said sedentary lifestyles, less exercise, poor diets, increased alcohol use and smoking during COVID also led to spikes in illnesses like heart disease, stroke, diabetes and depression.
He also pointed to potential impacts from long COVID, where the virus can affect multiple organs including the brain.
Seeking Help Critical
Given the survey’s findings on the lasting health effects of pandemic stress, APA’s Evans said people need to be aware of how seriously stress can damage health.
He advised people to reach out for help from health providers and support systems to prevent further health issues.
“Stress affects all systems of the body, so it is crucial that Americans know the serious impacts of stress and what they can do to reduce the effect of stressors in their life, as well as seek help from their health care providers and support systems to prevent further health conditions,” Evans said.
He pointed to nurturing healthy, supportive relationships as critical to boosting mental wellness during prolonged periods of stress.
“Particularly during periods of prolonged stress, it’s important that we facilitate opportunities for social connection and support,” Evans said.