As the coronavirus pandemic lingers, surveys and medical data continue to confirm the presence of another epidemic — mental health challenges.

The trauma persists into 2021, and folks continue to reach out for help. Experts hope that a good number of individuals triggered by the COVID-19 crisis will be able to get back on solid mental ground in a reasonable amount of time after it subsides.

"The burden of COVID-19 in New Jersey cannot be measured solely by confirmed cases and lives lost," said Cathy Bennett, president and CEO of the New Jersey Hospital Association. "It's important that we also understand the invisible toll of COVID — the mental health impacts brought on by fear, loss, isolation and, for many families and frontliners, the emotional trauma of this pandemic year."

NJHA's Center for Health Analytics, Research and Transformation analyzed survey responses and hospital data to get a better grasp on the mental health toll of COVID-19. The new report pointed to a higher prevalence of anxiety, depression and substance abuse among New Jersey residents amid the pandemic. The challenges have been more pronounced in younger people, the report noted.

Compared to the same time period in the previous three years, New Jersey saw a greater percentage (6.3%) of emergency department visits that presented with an anxiety-related diagnosis between April and December of 2020, according to the report. Individuals aged 18 to 29 recorded the biggest jump since 2017. The same goes for depression-related diagnoses.

The proportion of patients under the age of 18 presenting with mental and behavioral health diagnoses increased significantly from 2019 to 2020, the report also pointed out.

More than 40% of New Jersey adults who responded to a regular Census Bureau survey between Jan. 20 and Feb. 1 reported having anxiety or depression symptoms, according to the report. Prevalence was highest among adults aged 18 to 29.

In its report, NJHA noted that several measures are in place to help the state grapple with mental health concerns related to COVID-19. Among them, a package of bills sponsored by Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald, D-Camden, that aims to improve access to mental health care, and more than $100 million in federal relief funds going towards aiding students with education and mental health issues.

Compared to pre-pandemic days, call volume at the Mental Health Association in New Jersey doubled at certain points over the past year, according to president and CEO Carolyn Beauchamp. She believes that most callers had no history of mental illness prior to the outset of the pandemic's impacts on the Garden State.

"As we settle down and get back to something similar to normal, I think the majority of people will go back to whatever coping skills they had before," Beauchamp said. "Not that they're totally comfortable, but that they don't need treatment, they don't need counseling."

The rebound may be more difficult for those who've lost a job or loved one during the crisis, she noted.

Beauchamp said that more recently, families have been voicing their concerns about returning to the workplace or school, which has the potential to add to one's stress level. Beauchamp suggests this nervousness won't present as many problems as the pandemic has.

"You're going back to something that was stable," she said. "What we were facing with the pandemic was having no idea where we were going and what things were going to happen next."

Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.

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