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Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

This season could bring exceptionally bad winter blues — and even worse mental health conditions.

The big picture: The pandemic already is causing stress, anxiety and growing mental health disorders — and it could get worse with COVID fatigue, seasonal affective disorder and holiday-related depression, experts warn. But there are steps you can take to alleviate the dangers.

Driving the news: The CDC is urging Americans to stay home this Thanksgiving as deadly infections are spiking across the United States.

  • Hospitals are overwhelmed and understaffed, making social distancing and other measures even more important, public health officials say.

What's happening: The pandemic is exacerbating mental health trends — when mental health conditions already tend to worsen with holiday stress — and introducing new issues.

1. Loneliness is growing in senior adults and is leading to a rise in substance use disorder, according to a survey of 1,000 adults who have parents over 70 living alone.

  • 88% are more isolated from loved ones, 85% are more lonely, and 53% feel forgotten.
  • 77% are abusing prescription drugs, and 65% are abusing alcohol.
  • 54% have a diminished will to live, and 49% are believed to be at a higher risk for self-harm or suicide.

2. Young people also face greater mental health issues.

  • The CDC found the proportion of mental health–related visits to emergency departments rose 24% for children aged 5–11 and 31% for those aged 12–17 between April and October, when compared with the same period last year.
  • The pandemic is stressing a health care system already overburdened, as there's only about one child psychiatrist for every 15,000 youths under 18, Parker Huston, pediatric psychologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, tells Axios.
  • "What we've seen is that kids who are already at risk and already needed some basic mental health support are now finding themselves even more in need. And then kids who might have been managing relatively well are being put into the at-risk or even in-need category," Huston says.

3. Substance abuse is rising.

  • While it is too early for data to establish a direct correlation with the pandemic, suspected overdoses rose 18% in March, 29% in April and 42% in May from the prior year, the Washington Post reports.
  • "The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the challenges for people with a substance use disorder. Certainly, let's just look at the individual increased risk factors: more anxiety, more stress, more worry, isolation, economic anxiety, losing jobs," Patrice Harris, the immediate past president of the American Medical Association, told the National Association of Attorneys General on Monday.

Yes, but: There are steps individuals and communities can take to combat the pandemic's punch to mental health.

  • Create new holiday traditions, such as have families make cookies, potato latkes or tamales together while on Zoom, Huston suggests.
  • Get outside every day for exercise and to see green spaces or national parks, all of which will help produce serotonin and help with seasonal affective disorder and wellbeing, says Ken Yeager, professor of psychiatry at Ohio State.
  • Keep in constant contact with older family members.
  • Check on your older neighbors who live alone and help with their yard or errands. Plus that "gift of sharing gives you a rush of dopamine, which is your mood boost in your brain," Yeager adds.
  • Look for outreach programs in communities. Yeager says some match older adults with students or others for assistance and connection, or they offer daily phone check-ins.
  • Remote-learning kids need to develop routines at home — "one of the big benefits for most kids about school is the consistency," Huston adds.
  • Utilize tools like light treatment and Vitamin D for SAD, Yeager says.

The bottom line: "Social distancing does not mean social isolation" says Yeager, adding that society can encourage resilience to protect mental health.

If someone is having suicidal thoughts, go to your local ER immediately, call the Nationwide Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting "START" to 741-741.

Go deeper

Rep. Lou Correa tests positive for COVID-19

Lou Correa. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.) announced on Saturday that he has tested positive for the coronavirus.

Why it matters: Correa is the latest Democratic lawmaker to share his positive test results after last week's deadly Capitol riot. Correa did not shelter in the designated safe zone with his congressional colleagues during the siege, per a spokesperson, instead staying outside to help Capitol Police.

Updated Jan 15, 2021 - Axios Events

Watch: Affordability and the next administration

On Friday, January 15, Axios' Caitlin Owens hosted a conversation on the future of health care affordability with a new Biden administration, featuring former CMS administrator Dr. Mark McClellan and former Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.)

Dr. Mark McClellan discussed the priorities of the incoming Biden administration and challenges in health care access and affordability exacerbated by the pandemic.

  • On President-elect Biden dealing with the pandemic: "[He] was elected above all else for an effective response to the crisis. And that means the first round of legislation has to focus on more effective vaccination, more effective testing, reopening the economy, and giving people the economic support they need."
  • On people not getting the care they need during the pandemic: "We've seen a lot of health care complications because people did not get help. We don't have a strong public health system in this country...Most people did not get help. If they were at risk for infections, they had to go find a way to get tested on their own."

Rep. Greg Walden unpacked the value of telemedicine and creating an affordable, patient-centered health care system.

  • How technology can bridge existing health gaps: "We've learned the importance and practicality of getting health care closer to the patient. I'm speaking specifically about telemedicine. I think it can be both cost-effective and so much more convenient for the patient...You shouldn't have to rush into a hospital for everything you need."

Axios Vice President Yolanda Taylor Brignoni hosted a View from the Top segment with the CEO of OptumHealth, UnitedHealth Group, Dr. Wyatt W. Decker, who discussed the pandemic as a moment for the industry to think differently about how they provide accessible care.

  • On the potential for telemedicine: "Let's put the decision-making, good information, and support in the hands of a person and help provide them with digital tools that can give them easy access to health care with excellent outcomes. We [can] do this in a whole variety of ways by providing telehealth solutions."

Thank you UnitedHealth Group for sponsoring this event.

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

  1. Health: CDC director defends agency's response to pandemic — CDC warns highly transmissible coronavirus variant could become dominant in U.S. in March.
  2. Politics: Biden readies massive shifts in policy for his first days in office.
  3. Vaccine: Fauci: 100 million doses in 100 days is "absolutely" doable.
  4. Economy: Unemployment filings explode again.
  5. Tech: Kids' screen time sees a big increase.
  6. World: WHO team arrives in China to investigate pandemic origins.