Adam Gonzalez, director of behavioral health at Stony Brook Medicine,...

Adam Gonzalez, director of behavioral health at Stony Brook Medicine, said "getting back to some sense of normality" may be improving some people's mental health. Credit: Bruce Gilbert

Candace Johnson lost her grandfather to COVID-19, worries about contracting the virus herself and is anxious at how no one knows which path the pandemic will take.

"Anxiety and depression still does definitely come into my life due to the pandemic," the 28-year-old Freeport woman said.

'Anxiety and depression still does definitely come into my life due to the pandemic.'

-Candace Johnson, 28, of Freeport

Johnson is not alone. Two years into the pandemic, nearly a third of Americans report symptoms of anxiety and depression — triple the pre-pandemic number — as they adjust to shifting ideas of what the new normal will look like.

Continuing concerns about getting sick, the effects of earlier and current social isolation, and uncertainty about how long COVID-19 will remain a threat are among the reasons, mental health professionals said.

"We kept thinking things would get back to normal," said Theresa Buhse, executive director of the Bellmore-based Long Island Crisis Center. "People got their hopes up, and then their hopes were taken away. And that’s difficult for people to deal with. They start to feel helpless and hopeless."

What to know

Far more Americans continue to report symptoms of anxiety or depression than pre-pandemic, federal surveys show. In 2019, 10.8% of Americans reported such symptoms, compared with 31.5% today.

Even so, the number has dropped significantly from late 2020 and early 2021, when it stood at more than 40%. Mental health experts say less social isolation is a key reason.

Uncertainty over the future of the pandemic and dashed hopes of a return to normal are among the reasons anxiety and depression levels remain high, experts say.

As vaccinations offered protection to millions of New Yorkers, and life for many returned to a degree of normalcy, the percentage of adults reporting symptoms of anxiety, depression or both fell over the past year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey.

In New York, 29.6% of respondents reported symptoms of anxiety disorder or depressive disorder between Jan. 26 and Feb. 7, compared with 41.8% a year ago. The nationwide number also dropped, to 31.5%, but that's still far higher than the 10.8% who reported such symptoms in a separate federal health survey in 2019.

Mental health and substance abuse counselor Roseann Falcone said anxiety and depression levels likely will remain high until there is a sustained period without a spike in COVID-19 cases.

"If things start to get better and better, as they are, and it stays that way, then those feelings can change," said Falcone, a clinical director at Hicksville-based CN Guidance & Counseling Services who also is in private practice. "Then people may start to relax more and feel more in control."

Uncertainty leads to anxiety

Johnson said uncertainty is the main reason the pandemic continues to make her anxious.

"That’s the biggest part of it all — you don’t know when it’s going to end or if it’s going to end," she said.

Johnson, who does global security for a tech firm, works from home but is nervous about contracting the coronavirus when in-office work resumes.

Jane LaRocca, 80, of Long Beach, feels "down" sometimes because she and her husband don’t see friends, except outdoors.

'There have been invitations to things, but we’ve really been avoiding them.'

-Jane LaRocca, 80, of Long Beach

"Other than that, we haven’t been socializing," except with family, LaRocca said. "There have been invitations to things, but we’ve really been avoiding them. We’re not really comfortable."

LaRocca is vaccinated and boosted, but "you don’t know about the next" person.

Vaccination rates are high among older adults, and a fully vaccinated adult with a booster shot is 68 times less likely to die from COVID-19 than an unvaccinated person, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the relatively small number of hospitalizations and deaths of vaccinated people have been disproportionately among older adults and people with multiple medical conditions, according to the CDC.

Many experts don't expect COVID-19 to disappear, although they believe it likely will infect and kill people at lower levels.

For older adults or people with medical conditions that make them more vulnerable to severe COVID-19, the sense that "this is something they’re always going to have to face or deal with in some way can take its toll on somebody," said Christian Racine, senior director for clinics for the Huntington-based Family Service League.

Buhse said that, with fewer people wearing masks in public places than in the past, some vulnerable and socially anxious people may be more afraid to go out now.

Many LIers still grieving

Many Long Islanders are still dealing with the devastation of losing a loved one to COVID-19, Falcone said. Nearly 69,000 New Yorkers have died of the disease.

Johnson’s grandfather died of COVID-19 in April 2020 and "that’s something that still stays with my family," Johnson said. "We’re all grieving."

In late April and early May 2020, when hundreds of New Yorkers were dying of COVID-19 every day and the state was the nation's epicenter of the pandemic, 41.4% of New Yorkers reported anxiety or depression symptoms, the highest percentage in the country at the time.

Mary Portelli, 68, of Long Beach, said that because she’s vaccinated and boosted, and because case numbers have declined sharply in recent weeks, she’s not overly concerned about COVID-19.

'I felt down, no energy. I’m sort of an anxious person as it is, and I relieve it with exercise and fresh air.'

— Mary Portelli, 68, of Long Beach

"I feel positive about it," she said.

But early in the pandemic was difficult. The Long Beach boardwalk was closed for months, and "I live in a studio and depend on the boardwalk," Portelli said. "I felt down, no energy. I’m sort of an anxious person as it is, and I relieve it with exercise and fresh air."

Buhse said that in the early months of the pandemic, "every coping method people used was unavailable," whether it was exercise, socializing with friends, going to the movies or other outlets.

For some, especially people who already were dealing with existing mental health issues, "It put people into a crisis state almost immediately," she said.

Adam Gonzalez, director of behavioral health at Stony Brook Medicine, said "getting back to some sense of normality" may be improving some people’s mental health.

"They’re getting out more, being more social, getting back to things they were perhaps doing pre-pandemic," he said.

But Racine said that, even though most people are less isolated than in 2020, some have yet to recover from how they felt early on.

"For some people, depression and anxiety are very situational, so once the situation resolves itself, they get back to normal and eventually those symptoms go away," he said. "For other people, you hit a threshold where you develop an illness, this kind of syndrome involving depression or anxiety disorder, and once it’s there, it’s there for awhile, even if the circumstances improve."

'Low-level trauma' has effect

Racine said the constant "low-level trauma" of the pandemic also has an effect — of having to worry about COVID-19 when standing near someone in an elevator, at a grocery store or on a bus.

"Over time, it makes us somewhat anxious or hypervigilant all the time," he said.

The mental health effects of the pandemic can be seen in the sharp rise in drug overdose deaths and in increased drug and alcohol use, Falcone said. Existing substance problems were exacerbated, and some who, for example, previously had consumed alcohol moderately are now doing so more frequently, she said.

Falcone also is seeing the larger political and social battles over masks and vaccination lead to tension within families. Mixed-vaccination-status couples argue over whether to vaccinate their children, and whether to invite unvaccinated people into their homes. Falcone also has heard of kids being bullied outside the classroom for wearing masks.

Although most children long ago returned to in-person instruction, being isolated from their peers for months affected their socialization, and "that’s had a lasting effect for some," as has seeing the effect of the pandemic on their parents, Racine said.

A CBS News/YouGov poll this month found that 36% of parents believed their children’s mental and emotional health had worsened since the pandemic began.

Gonzalez said that despite the emotional trauma the pandemic caused, it might have led some people to make major life decisions that will make them happier. He pointed to data showing an increase in employee resignations and turnover.

The turmoil of the pandemic, he said, "can push people to reflect on ‘What is it I value, what is it that is important to me?’ to refocus their attention on those aspects of their life, on what their desires are."