1 year into COVID-19 pandemic, 62% of Americans have “hit the wall” mentally

It’s a term familiar to runners, cyclists, and others who participate in endurance sports – “hitting the wall,” or reaching a point of sudden fatigue and energy loss, induced by depleted glucose levels in the body.

Like many phrases, hitting the wall has evolved. In the ongoing endurance test that is the COVID-19 pandemic, it has come to mean reaching a point of mental and emotional exhaustion brought on by pandemic-related stress and restrictions.

In a year that has battered Americans in a multitude of ways, OnlineTherapy.com wanted to gauge Americans’ mental well-being as the pandemic nears its one-year anniversary.

In a new survey conducted in partnership with Pollfish, a trusted online survey platform, we asked 600 Americans ages 18 to 54 and older to describe the state of their mental health both prior to the pandemic, and now, as its one-year anniversary nears. We also asked what steps, if any, they are taking to address mental and emotional health issues triggered by this ongoing public health crisis.

Key Findings

  • 42% of Americans with pre-existing mental health conditions said their conditions have worsened during the pandemic
  • 62% of Americans say they’ve “hit the wall” with pandemic-related stress and restrictions.
  • Nearly ¾ of Americans are optimistic that life will start to return to normal by fall.
  • 40% of people have turned to online or in-person therapy to help with mental health symptoms

Last summer, 40% of Americans say they “hit the wall” with pandemic-related stress

According to our survey, 62% of respondents have experienced the feeling of hitting the wall with fatigue from pandemic-related disruptions like stress and restrictions. Twenty-nine percent of respondents said they have not experienced these feelings, and 9% of respondents said they weren’t sure, or did not answer.

Members of the Millennial and Gen X generations are more likely than their younger and older counterparts to say that they’ve hit a wall. Sixty-seven percent of 35-44 year-olds, 64% of 25-34 year-olds, and 63% of 45-54 year-olds said they’ve experienced hitting the wall, compared to 57% of those 54 and older, and 42% of 18-24 year-olds.

Amid a crisis that has forced people to limit their social circles to primarily family for the past year, married people are the most likely to say that they’ve hit the wall during the pandemic, with 68% of people in this group saying they experienced this sense of pandemic fatigue. By comparison, 58% of people who are separated or divorced, 57% of single individuals, 53% of people who live with a partner, and 50% of widowed individuals said they have “hit the wall” during the pandemic.

For 40% of respondents, the moment of “hitting the wall” came last summer, 4-6 months into the pandemic. Another 25% of people said that they hit the wall 7 to 9 months in, or between September and November, while 22% said it was 1 to 3 months into the pandemic. Only 9% of respondents said that they have experienced this phenomenon more recently, at the 10-month mark of the pandemic.

42% of Americans with pre-existing mental health conditions say they’ve gotten worse during the pandemic

One possible contributing factor to this increasing sense of fatigue is that, going into the pandemic, the majority of Americans were not in an optimal state of mental health. When asked to identify any mental health symptoms they had experienced prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, 87% of survey respondents selected at least one symptom of a mental health issue.

The most common conditions people cited were anxiety disorder symptoms, including anxiety, excessive worry, fear, and insomnia, and depressive disorder symptoms, including feelings of sadness, loss of interest, and change in appetite.

Fifty-five percent of respondents said they have experienced anxiety disorder symptoms, and 46% said they have experienced depressive disorder symptoms. Twenty-four percent of respondents also indicated they had experienced symptoms of trauma and stressor-related disorders, such as PTSD. Seventeen percent of respondents said they experienced issues with substance abuse, and 15.5% said they have seriously considered suicide at some point.

Of those who experienced mental health symptoms prior to the start of the pandemic, 42% said that those symptoms have worsened since COVID-19 hit. Twenty-eight percent of people said their symptoms have remained about the same, and 27% said their symptoms have improved.

Although men and women reported pre-existing mental health symptoms at similar rates (89% and 84%, respectively), men were four times as likely as women to say that their mental health symptoms improved during the pandemic, at a rate of 42% to 10%.

By comparison, women were more than twice as likely as men to say that their mental health symptoms have worsened during the pandemic, at a rate of 68% to 29%. These numbers support analyses that the pandemic has had disproportionate effects on women, particularly working mothers.

Older Americans were more likely than other age groups to report experiencing worsening mental health symptoms within the last year. Fifty-three percent of people ages 54 and older with pre-existing mental health symptoms said those symptoms worsened during the pandemic, while 27% said their symptoms have remained the same.

Younger adults ages 18-24 also experienced a high rate of deteriorating mental health; 47.5% of respondents in this age group said their symptoms worsened during the pandemic, and 22.5% said they have remained the same. Individuals ages 35-44 were the most likely to say their symptoms improved, with 36% of people in this group saying they experienced improvement in their mental health during the pandemic, although a nearly equal percentage, 37%, said their symptoms worsened.

43% of Americans report developing mental health-related symptoms during the pandemic

Of the 13% of people who said they did not have mental health-related symptoms prior to the pandemic, 43% said they have experienced one or more symptoms since the pandemic began.

Anxiety disorder and depressive disorder symptoms were the most common, with 18% of respondents saying they experienced symptoms of one or both of these conditions. Nine percent of respondents said they have started abusing substances during the pandemic.

Men were more likely than women to say they developed symptoms during the pandemic, at a rate of 52% to 35%.

Eighteen-to-twenty-four year-olds experienced the onset of mental health symptoms at a higher rate than any other age group, with 53% of young adults saying they started experiencing mental health issues for the first time during the pandemic. By comparison, 32% of people ages 25-34 said they began experiencing mental health symptoms since the start of the pandemic.

Widowed individuals also saw significant changes in their mental health status, with 67% of people in this group saying they’ve started experiencing one or more mental health symptoms since the start of the pandemic. Single individuals were the least likely to say they started experiencing mental health symptoms during the pandemic, with only 33% saying they developed symptoms of one or more mental health conditions since the start of the pandemic.

More Americans turned to friends and family than professional counseling for help with mental health issues

Overall, 95% of people who experienced mental health symptoms during the pandemic sought some type of help for these issues.

The most popular source of assistance was friends and family, with 49% of people saying they sought help from these individuals. Professional services were also popular; an equal number of respondents, 40%, said they spoke to a professional counselor, either in-person or online, or with their primary healthcare provider. One-third of respondents also cited online research as a way of seeking help, and one-fourth of respondents said they sought help on social media or online discussion platforms.

Men were more likely than women to seek professional counseling services, by a rate of 48% to 32%. By comparison, women were slightly more likely than men to seek help from friends and family, by a rate of 52% to 46%.

Professional counseling was most popular among 25-44 year-olds, with 46% of these individuals saying they sought online or in-person therapy to help them deal with their mental health symptoms. The youngest and oldest individuals surveyed were least likely to seek professional counseling, with only 30% of 18-24 year-olds, and individuals 54 and older saying they tried therapy to help with their symptoms.

Higher income individuals were more likely to seek professional help, either from a counselor or their primary healthcare provider, than lower income individuals. Fifty-four percent of respondents who earn $150,000 or more annually said they sought in-person or online therapy, while 61% of people in this income bracket spoke to a primary healthcare provider about their mental health issues. By comparison, among individuals who earn less than $25,000 per year, 34% sought help from a professional counselor, and 36% sought help from a primary care physician.

73% of Americans express optimism that life will start to return to normal by the end of 2021

Despite the continuing challenges that Americans are facing amid the pandemic, hope remains, especially as the nation’s vaccination program accelerates, and improved treatments for COVID-19 become available.

When asked how optimistic they were that the U.S. will be able to get the pandemic under control enough for life to start to return to normal this year, 46% of respondents said they are “somewhat optimistic,” and 27% said they are “very optimistic.” Twenty percent of respondents said they are “not at all optimistic” that the pandemic will be contained enough for normalcy to return this year, while 6% of respondents chose not to answer.

Whether this optimism is rewarded remains to be seen, but it’s encouraging to see hopefulness remains in a year that has been difficult for so many.

Methodology

The data from this report comes from an online survey administered by online survey platform Pollfish. The survey was created and paid for by OnlineTherapy.com. In total, 600 Americans ages 18 to 54 and older were asked to identify any mental health-related symptoms they experienced prior to and during the pandemic, as well as any sources from which they sought help for their mental health symptoms.

For questions that allowed multiple answers, there are two results. The percent for “respondents” was calculated by dividing each answer by the total unique respondents, and the percent for “answers” was calculated by dividing each answer count by the total counts collected. This survey was conducted on February 16, 2021.

Full Survey Results

Prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, did you experience any of the following mental health related symptoms?

  • Anxiety disorder symptoms (anxiety, excessive worry, fear, insomnia, etc.): Respondents – 55%; Answers – 30%
  • Depressive disorder symptoms (feelings of sadness, loss of interest, change in appetite, etc.): Respondents – 46%; Answers – 26%
  • Substance abuse: Respondents – 17%; Answers – 9%
  • Seriously considered suicide: Respondents – 15.5%; Answers – 9%
  • Trauma and stressor related disorder(s) symptoms PTSD (Post traumatic stress Disorder), ASD (Acute Stress Disorder), etc.):
  • Respondents – 24%; Answers – 13%
  • Not sure/I’d rather not say: Respondents – 24%; Answers – 13%

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, have you started experiencing any of the following mental health related symptoms?

  • Anxiety disorder symptoms (anxiety, excessive worry, fear, insomnia, etc.): Respondents – 18%; Answers – 14%
  • Depressive disorder symptoms (feelings of sadness, loss of interest, change in appetite, etc.): Respondents – 18%; Answers – 14%
  • Substance abuse: Respondents – 9%; Answers – 7%
  • Seriously considered suicide: Respondents – 4%; Answers – 4%
  • Trauma and stressor related disorder(s) symptoms (PTSD (Post traumatic stress Disorder), ASD (Acute Stress Disorder), etc.):
  • Respondents – 5%; Answers – 4%
  • Not sure/I’d rather not say: Respondents – 71%; Answers – 57%

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, would your say your mental health related symptoms have:

  • Improved: 27%
  • Worsened: 42%
  • Remained about the same: 28%
  • Not sure/I’d rather not say: 3%

Have you sought help from any of the following sources for mental health related symptoms during the pandemic?

  • Professional therapist/counselor (in-person or online): Respondents – 40%; Answers – 19%
  • Primary healthcare provider: Respondents – 40%; Answers – 18%
  • Online discussion platforms/social media (Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, etc.): Respondents – 26%; Answers – 12%
  • Online research (Google research): Respondents – 33%; Answers – 16%
  • Friends and family: Respondents – 49%; Answers – 23%
  • Mobile web-based app: Respondents – 16%; Answers – 7%
  • Not sure/I’d rather not say: Respondents – 10%; Answers – 5%

Do you feel like you have experienced the phenomenon of “hitting a wall” in terms of fatigue with pandemic-related stress, restrictions, etc.?

  • Yes: 62%
  • No: 29%
  • Not sure/I’d rather not say: 9%

At what point in the pandemic would you say you experienced the phenomenon of “hitting the wall”?

  • 1-3 months: 22%
  • 4-6 months: 40%
  • 7-9 months: 25%
  • 10-12 months: 9%
  • Not sure/I’d rather not say: 2%

Given that COVID-19 vaccinations have begun, and more treatments for COVID-19 are available, how optimistic are you that the pandemic will be under control enough in the U.S. for life to return to normal in 2021?

  • Not at all optimistic: 21%
  • Somewhat optimistic: 47%
  • Very optimistic: 25%
  • Not sure/I’d rather not say: 7%