The last year has been an adjustment to say the least–one that perhaps we’re still not adjusted to, or even designed to ever be. There is an ongoing crisis lying directly beneath the isolation of the pandemic, or even just adjacent to it: mental health. 

Despite the continued rollout of COVID vaccines and a general eagerness to return to travel, restaurants, and events, CivicScience data has shown that Americans’ emotional well-being has yet to fully bounce back since the start of lockdowns.

There has been some positive movement in emotions, since February 2020 when everything as we knew it changed practically overnight. Reports of sadness and worry have stabilized to pre-COVID levels among the general population (18 and older).

Perhaps a bigger indicator of overall mental health is that CivicScience data show feelings of excitement and happiness are still not even close to bouncing back. While both indicators have certainly improved in the past couple of months, they’re still much lower than they were a year ago. Maybe this comes as no surprise.

To examine the state of mental health in America, CivicScience launched a new survey that showed more than half (51%) of U.S. adults feel their mental health has been negatively impacted as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Young adults aged 25 to 29 report the greatest negative impact of the pandemic on  their mental health. On the flip side, the youngest adults (aged 18 to 24) are the most likely to say their mental health was positively impacted, though this ‘positive’ group is a small group overall.

And, as other recent CivicScience data show, the pandemic has been more challenging for women. Women report their mental health has been more negatively impacted than men – by a solid 10 percentage points. 

Likely due to the age proxy above, non-parents are more likely to characterize their mental health as negatively impacted by the pandemic than parents are. 

Another interesting finding, but certainly not surprising in the slightest, is that single and separated people over-index in reporting their mental health has been damaged compared to their counterparts.

People in the highest income bracket are slightly more likely to report the pandemic having a negative impact on their mental health than middle-income individuals, but those who earn under $50K annually are right behind them.

Remote workers over-index in having experienced a much poorer mental state than people who have lost their job due to the pandemic. While we do not think remote work is necessarily a causation here, the data are compelling.

CivicScience data show that people aged 35 to 54 are more likely to be working at home due to the pandemic (25%) but 25- to 34-year-olds are right behind them (at 20%). Relationship status may be driving feelings of isolation and poor mental health more than work status among younger adults.

So Much to Miss

Isolation has been a general trend over the past year, but some people may struggle with some aspects of social distancing and self-isolation more than others. According to another CivicScience survey run in tandem, it’s not so much something specific that the majority of people report struggling to cope with, it’s the general theme of not having the option to go out freely. It’s the feeling of being trapped inside. Thirty-one percent of the 3,500 U.S. adults said this has been the most challenging restriction, and another 19% said it was most difficult to not be able to see their family.

Only 7% say they have struggled to cope with not seeing friends the most, and a mere 3% and 2% say not going to work or school has been the most difficult.

Revisiting work status, those who are out of work are the most likely to have struggled with not going to work, while remote workers are only slightly more likely than the general population to say this. Rather, remote workers are the most likely group to say they struggle with not being able to see their friends and socialize. When you also don’t leave the house for work and are lacking that socialization element of your day, this only makes sense.

The youngest adults aged 18 to 24 are the most likely to say not going to work and not going to university has been difficult to cope with. Older Americans 55 and older are the most likely group to have struggled with not being able to see their family.

The general lack of freedom that is the top struggle among Americans also appears to be driving the negative impact on mental health. This is observed when crossing the two core questions for this study, shown in the chart below. Those who say that their mental health has been negatively impacted overall are the most likely to say it’s been the most difficult to not have the option to freely do as they please.

Activities and Getting Back to a (New) Normal

The general theme of being stuck and unable to move about freely may have a lot to do with one’s perception and following of official guidance. The CDC still says travel is not advisable due to the pandemic, but people weigh their risks and make their own decisions, or perhaps have to travel due to necessity. The data show those who have traveled during the pandemic are a great deal more likely to say the pandemic has had no impact on their mental health.

The same can be said for what once was one of the simplest pleasures – restaurant dining. Those who will not be comfortable with dining at a restaurant for many more months have experienced a greater negative impact on their mental health over the past year than people who are comfortable dining out now.

The data point to a bigger picture. The pandemic’s mental health impact has many layers, but ultimately may come down to general concern about the pandemic. That may sound obvious, but specific data show that those who are most concerned about contracting COVID themselves are more likely to report a negative impact on their mental health.

This is shown even more clearly when cross-tabulating with the CivicScience survey asking people about their concern being in public during the pandemic. Those who say the pandemic has negatively impacted their mental state are 13 percentage points more likely to be very concerned about being in public spaces than those who say it’s had a positive impact on their mental health.

While the mental health crisis brought on by the pandemic may take many months or years to improve, if cases continue to decline and the vaccine campaign is successful, there is some hope out there that Americans will begin to heal.