These past weeks have tested the United States in ways that few could have predicted—from the early hoarding of toilet paper to the rise of home baking and now the protests against public health measures that are designed to save lives. But there is one outcome that is becoming increasingly clear to everyone: the coronavirus pandemic will not end easily or suddenly, and even when it’s over, we will be feeling its after-shocks for a long time.
No matter what happens with the virus and the related financial collapse, public health experts are anticipating a wave of mental illness caused by the isolation, fear, and anxiety that has gripped the nation during months of social distancing and sickness. In many ways, this crisis has already started, making this year’s Mental Health Awareness Month critical.
According to a late April survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, almost half (45 percent) of American adults reported that the coronavirus pandemic had negatively affected their mental health. The main causes were anxiety and worry over getting sick or losing loved ones, social isolation and loneliness caused by shelter-in-place orders (especially for older adults), and widespread issues related to job losses such as depression, low self-esteem, and anxiety.
While it’s still too early to tell exactly how this will affect the general population, there are already plenty of warning signs. In the early days of the pandemic, the market research firm Nielsen reported that alcohol sales surged 55% in a single week. Online sales rose 243%.
One population—healthcare providers—is also showing the strain. In late April, an emergency room doctor in Manhattan, Dr. Lorna M. Breen, committed suicide. She had no history of mental illness and her story was covered across the country. Dr. Breen was the medical director of the emergency department at New York-Presbyterian Allen hospital and had spent weeks struggling to care for the onslaught of patients in her hospital, some of who were dying “before they could even be taken out of ambulances,” according to the New York Times.
The same month Dr. Breen died, more than 9,000 healthcare workers were infected with coronavirus and 27 died, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Among the healthcare providers who were able to work, the media was filled with stories of nurses facilitating Skype calls between dying patients in isolation and their loved ones, or doctors working around the clock, racing from patient to patient and making hard decisions about who they could treat and who was already too far gone.
As we head into the post-pandemic world, there are serious questions about the U.S. mental health system’s ability to handle surging rates of mental illness. Studies from previous traumatic events, including the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Great Recession of 2008-2009, showed dramatic spikes in the number of suicides, anxiety and depression diagnoses, domestic abuse, and substance use disorders after the events. Experts are predicting a similar wave after coronavirus, especially among front-line workers like health care professionals, delivery people, and grocery store employees. Already, services like the hotline at Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services agency are reporting increases of 1,000 percent or more, while private companies are seeing a huge increase in calls from people needing help.
While these are grim predictions, America’s leading mental health advocates and agencies are looking for ways to help mitigate this “second wave” of disease. On April 27, a group that included the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association sent a public plea to the Trump administration to increase funding and access to mental health services, and to ensure that telehealth services are fully funded and covered for mental illness.
In fact, the rapid movement toward telehealth provides one of the best hopes for dealing with this expected crush of new diagnoses. Mental health conditions are often well-suited to being treated remotely, even with a simple phone call or assigning or sending educational materials remotely that can help people understand their conditions, follow their treatment plans, and know when they should seek out help. Yet, even with a perfect response, mental health experts are bracing for a difficult time ahead, as America and the world struggles to emerge from this pandemic and find a new normal.
If you or someone you know needs emergency help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or the national helpline at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at 1-800-662-4357. If you’d like to learn more about how The Wellness Network can help support your organization’s mental health programs, call 1-888-219-4678.
 Letter to Trump Administration, April 27, 2020.
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