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COVID-19 pandemic harming mental health of Hawaii residents, especially young and lower-income people, survey reveals

  • Craig T. Kojima / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Honolulu police were out in force Thursday in Waikiki, enforcing the city’s mask mandate. Officer Justin Nakakuni warned a pedestrian on Kalakaua Avenue who quickly complied.

    Craig T. Kojima / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Honolulu police were out in force Thursday in Waikiki, enforcing the city’s mask mandate. Officer Justin Nakakuni warned a pedestrian on Kalakaua Avenue who quickly complied.

The coronavirus is taking a toll on mental health — particularly for Hawaii’s young adults and lower-income residents with household earnings of less than $50,000.

Some 82% of respondents to a recent survey by the Department of Health have “experienced a mental health condition at some point over the last six months,” with more than half — 52% — saying their symptoms started during the pandemic. At least 35% of residents with mental health conditions before the COVID-19 crisis indicated their symptoms worsened during the ordeal.

“People are really in survival mode right now, so when you’re moving from one crisis to the next, that is bound to have a negative impact on one’s mental health,” said Kathleen Merriam, a mental health supervisor at the Windward Community Mental Health Center. “We don’t even know the long-term effects of something like a pandemic on mental health.”

For most people this is the first time they are experiencing a crisis of such magnitude, she said. With the vast numbers of jobless unable to make ends meet and concerns over COVID-19 health implications, the crisis is overwhelming for many residents.

“When we look at just our basic needs not being met, then that’s going to affect an entire community’s mental health,” Merriam said. “It’s beyond the individual’s mental health. Entire communities are suffering as well. One stress gets compounded by additional stressors. Part of the complexity is there’s an unknown — we don’t know how long we have to go through this. A lot of people are wondering, ‘Will I lose my job? I paid my rent this month, but can I pay it next month?’ People are panicking about the future as well. It’s very scary.”

About 68% of respondents to the DOH survey had anxiety, 61% felt loneliness, 57% were depressed at some point and 33% suffered panic attacks during the past six months.

What’s more, household income appears to compound those negative feelings.

More than 90% of residents in households earning less than $50,000 experienced one or more symptoms over the past half-year. That compares with 75% of affected residents in households earning more than $100,000.

In addition, 93% of adults under 35 had a mental health condition, while 65% of seniors dealt with those issues, according to the survey of 445 residents from Dec. 30 to Jan. 11.

Residents with a child under 18 in the household were more likely to have mental health conditions than those without children, and people who were more concerned with the financial impact of the pandemic were also more likely to have mental stress and depression in the past six months, the survey showed.

Men are being more affected, with 58% citing a new issue due to the pandemic. Women, however, were more likely to have anxiety and panic attacks.

The poll also noted that Japanese residents are having a particularly difficult time, with 68% currently experiencing mental health problems they did not have before.

“We’re all being affected by the pandemic,” Amy Curtis, chief administrator of the Department of Health’s Adult Mental Health Division, said in a news release. “This is a real issue that calls attention to the need to be vigilant about meeting the needs of our neighbors, friends, co-workers and others in the community.”

Health officials reported one new coronavirus death and 95 new infections, bringing the state’s totals since the start of the pandemic to 424 fatalities and 26,675 cases.

The Health Department is encouraging people to connect with family or friends, get support from therapists or call the DOH Hawaii CARES hotline at 800-753-6879 or text “ALOHA” to 741741 — 24 hours a day, seven days a week — for help.

In September the hotline received a record-high 16,158 calls.

“Part of our challenge is how do we inspire hope and a sense of future with people that feel such despair. Part of that answer is making sure we have resources in place,” Merriam said, adding that each county is now offering COVID-19 counseling through the hotline for groups and individuals.

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