October 10th may have been officially dubbed World Mental Health Day. But for the estimated 792 million people living with a diagnosed mental health condition across the globe, a single 24-hour span is hardly enough.
Mental health is a big part of our cultural discourse. We comment. We share resources and encouraging words. We tweet about it every single day. We call for increased accessibility to services and demand a greater understanding and empathy from our jobs, neighbors, friends and family members. But at the end of the day, many of us fail to understand one critical factor about mental health: it doesn’t just affect our emotional and mental landscapes. Mental health affects every aspect of our lives.
That includes our hearing. Among the findings in a 2019 study published in the BMC Journal of Public Health was a correlation between minor hearing loss and symptoms of anxiety and depression in women between the ages of 20 and 39. In addition, data from a CDC survey conducted in 2011 and 2012 concluded there was a stronger association between generalized depression and high-frequency hearing loss among respondents of both genders under the age of 70.
In March 2021, the World Health Organization released their first World Report on Hearing, which projected that nearly 2.5 billion people around the world will suffer some form of hearing loss over the next 30 years. To put that into perspective, that’s 1 out of every 4 people globally today. But how much of that estimated loss is the result of preventable causes and how much is due to the chief health crisis facing every single one of us in 2021?
The Link Between Hearing Loss and Coronavirus
Recent CDC estimates indicate that approximately 120.2 million infections of COVID-19 were reported in the U.S. between February 2020 and May 2021, with 70 percent of new cases reported between March and April of this year being attributable to the delta variant. Yet despite the efficacy of vaccinations, there’s a cumulative effect on physical health as a result of the coronavirus. And more increasingly, that’s resulting in both short and long term hearing loss.
In 2012, the estimated number of the US population suffering from hearing loss dropped by roughly 3 percent to 27.7 million cases. Yet as early as 2017, the Journal of the American Medical Association posited that the number of cases could skyrocket to 44 million by 2020. But 2017 didn’t witness the global pandemic we’re currently facing. A review published in the International Journal of Audiology in March 2021 revealed that some 14.8 percent of COVID-19 patients also experienced symptoms of hearing loss, vertigo and tinnitus after being diagnosed with the coronavirus, while a recent study in the Indian Journal of Otolaryngology estimated that number could much higher. A staggering 31 percent of coronavirus patients under the age of 60 admitted to hospitals in 2021 were also found to have experienced symptomatic hearing loss.
Is There a Link Between Mental Health, Hearing Loss and the Coronavirus?
According to the World Health Organization, approximately 970 million people—nearly 15 percent of the global population—had been diagnosed with some form of mental health disorder in 2017. Yet according to recent data from the CDC, the percentage of adults who specifically reported symptoms of anxiety and depression alone in the US increased by over 5 percent between August 2020 and February 2021. Even more alarming, more than 11 percent of that number also reported insufficient resources for their mental health needs.
Yet hearing loss can exacerbate many of the incidental conditions associated with mental health disorder. The links between tinnitus and insomnia have been well established, while a 2007 study published in the American Journal of Audiology confirmed that auditory behavior triggered by post-traumatic stress disorder frequently resulted in noise tolerance levels and delayed responses almost exactly the same as those of tinnitus.
- Over 6 percent of Americans have been estimated as experiencing one or more triggers of PTSD in 2020, while an expected 15 million will experience PTSD during any given year.
- Over 41 percent of the U.S. population experienced indicators of depressive and anxiety disorders during a seven-day period in January 2021, with the largest increase occurring in males between the ages of 18 and 29.
- Approximately one out of every eight Americans over the age of 12 have been diagnosed as suffering from qualitative hearing loss in both ears.
- 46 percent of adult patients reporting hearing loss have seen a healthcare provider for their hearing between 2015 and 2020. Yet hearing aid sales fell by nearly 20 percent in the US during 2020, with many practices closing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Both degeneration in cortical activity and age-related changes in social activity have been cited as causes for both depression and hearing loss in adults over the age of 64.
- An estimated 27 million adults experiencing a mental health disorder remained untreated in the US during 2020.
- Approximately 19 percent of the 130 member countries of the World Health Organization reported pandemic-related difficulties in facilitating mental health treatment as of October 10, 2020.
Associated symptoms of hearing loss, mental health and COVID-19 infections aren’t definitively linked. The past two years haven’t necessarily been a sufficient amount of time to establish any conclusive evidence of a correlation between all three conditions. But it may be time to reassess just how strong the association between mental and physical health can be. Yet accessible resources for the former are severely underfunded in all regions affected by the pandemic, with the strain on frontline workers becoming a chief concern as infections continue to rise.
Our bodies deserve better. Our mental well being deserves better. Our hearing deserves better. And we all deserve better. Protecting ourselves isn’t a question of wishful thinking. It requires resources, communication and action. Politicizing a health crisis is not a solution. And it never will be. Understanding the effects of a health crisis is, however. And understanding how we adjust our lives to a period of crisis is the first step in learning to understand ourselves.