Confronting the ‘Shadow Pandemic’ of Mental Health Disorders


In grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve understandably had to place most of our focus on studying and combating the disease upending society. But beyond the direct health impacts of the virus, the pandemic has had reverberations that have thrown cities, workplaces, households and individual lives — into disarray.

When it comes to secondary effects, I am particularly concerned by what has been called the “shadow pandemic” of depression and mental health disorders that COVID-19 has been leaving in its wake. From 2019 to 2021, the percentage of adults in the United States reporting symptoms of anxiety and depression increased from 11% to 30% — an astonishing, and deeply concerning, rise. Importantly, this change has been felt unevenly by people in different demographics, with those from underrepresented minority backgrounds seeing the most severe increases.

UCLA research across the disciplines has played a critical role in helping us understand the various dimensions of the problem. For instance, Liwei Chen, associate professor of epidemiology at the Fielding School of Public Health, has measured the tremendous psychological distress Americans have suffered over pandemic-related job losses and pay cuts. Among the most revealing findings was that this distress was greatest among Asian Americans and Black Americans.

In another important study, Bridget Callaghan, assistant professor of psychology, examined the significant damage that a lack of in-person social connection during the pandemic has had on both children and adults. According to Callaghan, 76% of parents with school-age children reported that their kids had been “substantially hurt, either academically or socially” due to remote learning and quarantining. And, unfortunately, anxiety is infectious; if parents were fearful about COVID-19, so were their kids.

Other UCLA research has found that members of certain identity groups suffered outsize pandemic-related harm to their mental health. A Luskin School of Public Affairs study revealed increased anxiety and loneliness among gay men because of the closing of many LGBTQ bars and social spaces.

While doing the critical work of evaluating the scope of this problem, UCLA has also been involved in seeking solutions. Scholars associated with our Depression Grand Challenge are collaborating with Apple on a long-term digital mental health study that will enable us to determine how data from digital devices can help predict the onset and trajectory of depression. The information gained may enable us to catch the signs of disorders early on and direct individuals to resources that can help.

In the past two years, people around the world have faced untold numbers of traumatic and stressful events, both large and small. Some of us have lost friends or loved ones to this frightening new disease. We’ve grappled with feelings of isolation, loneliness and the loss of experiences. Many have suffered job loss, or, at the least, have had to adapt to unfamiliar ways of working and interacting. We all became necessarily hypervigilant about health and cleanliness.

All of these experiences have clearly taken a toll on our mental health. But if there is a silver lining, it is that the pandemic has drawn much-needed attention to depression and anxiety — struggles people faced long before March of 2020 and will still encounter when the pandemic has receded into history. I am grateful that UCLA is playing a leading role in studying these mental health disorders, finding solutions and destigmatizing treatment. In the years ahead, we will continue our work toward ensuring healing and wholeness for everyone, in mind as well as in body.