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Understanding the mental health impact of COVID-19

April 23, 2021 | Mental Health

A mother uses her laptop and holds her sleeping infant while talking on the phone.

The country may be at a mental health breaking point.

COVID-19 has exacerbated mental health issues in the U.S. at an astonishing rate, with a swell of stress and anxiety that has consistently worsened since spring 2020. Aside from fear of catching and spreading the virus, extreme isolation from friends and family, mass job loss, an unstable economy, and widespread social and political tensions have all contributed to a mental health crisis in this country like no other.

That’s why Aetna, a CVS Health company, sought to gain a deeper understanding of the mental and emotional toll the past year has taken on the nation, which is an important step in our long-standing commitment to normalize mental health issues and provide preventative support and increased access to proper mental health care.

These results are detailed in a new white paper “The Impact of COVID-19 on mental well-being in the U.S.” Read the full report detailing the emotional impact of vaccines, attitudes toward telemedicine, and more.

According to the survey, just under half of Americans have had concerns around the physical and mental health of family and friends, while just over a third have had concerns about increased isolation.

A staggering 65% of Americans ages 18 to 34 have had concerns about their own mental health or that of household members, family, or friends since the COVID-19 outbreak.
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In addition, more than a third of Americans who responded that they had contracted COVID-19 also indicated they were still living with the physical and emotional side effects of the virus.

The good news is that with vaccinations underway, most adults (58%) indicate they now feel more hopeful. And people are more comfortable receiving care virtually — in fact, from April 2020 through December 2020, more than 60% of outpatient mental health visits were conducted via telemedicine, up from just 1% in 2019.

Even though we feel on track to return to “life as usual,” the country may struggle with varying degrees of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) due to COVID-19. What’s more, Post-COVID Stress Disorder (PCSD) is becoming an increasingly popular term among mental health professionals when referring to COVID-related anxiety and depression that is expected to linger for possibly years after the pandemic is over.

Cara McNulty, DPA, President, Aetna Behavioral Health

“Vaccines are an exciting development and our light at the end of the tunnel, but the trauma may have implications far beyond this pandemic. We need to remain focused right now on improving access to care and shattering stigma to meet the expected need. A collective focus on our mental wellbeing will be crucial to moving past COVID-19.”


The path to mental wellbeing is not always an easy one. Seeking care can be difficult amid the complexities of the country’s health care system, and within a society that can make people feel ashamed for needing support. But the need is clear, and now is the moment to make mental health care more accessible, more affordable, and simply better.

The Aetna Mental Health Pulse Survey was conducted by Morning Consult between January 22, 2021, to January 25, 2021, among a national sample of 2,200 Adults ages 18 to 65+. Of the 2,200 participants surveyed, 209 indicated they had tested positive for COVID-19 or had been told by a health care professional they had the virus.