The COVID pandemic has focused largely on physical health, the role of frontline treatment providers, and the overall public health measures. While not quite as much in front of the news and much less of a priority for funding, we are seeing mental health impacts as well both in the general public and mental health professionals responses. For example, domestic violence homicides are on the rise and increased substance use. Many therapists have seen increases in the need for their services while simultaneously having had to deal with transitions to telehealth, parenting and teaching children at home all day, and having to cope with their own responses to the pandemic. Add to this, anxiety about the 2020 presidential election and social unrest, and we have a population that is already dealing with highest levels of stress that many have faced in their lifetimes.
While the current national focus is on the second wave of coronavirus, we are just now starting to realize that there will be a second wave of mental health issues that will hit our field as well. Government reports of uncertainties in reopening timelines, best methods for limiting the spread of the virus, and inconsistent messaging are causing people to lose hope for the future and many clients are struggling with the idea of what the future may hold for them. But beyond the existential crisis of not knowing what’s next, we have evidence of greater rates of depression and anxiety in the general population. But there is early evidence of increased cases of schizophrenia in Wuhan, China following the initial outbreak and subsequent shutdown in response to the virus.
We are still in the early days of gathering research worldwide on the mental health effects, but we can look at the responses to past tragedies to see similar mental health responses. Survivors of 9/11, the bird flu pandemic, and isolated quarantines already show that we know people and health care workers have bad reactions to uncertainty and great upheaval in our lives. But little is being done with the lessons learned from before. While certain actions like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo created a free mental health hotline, it was staffed by thousands of volunteers who themselves are at higher risks of secondary trauma and post-traumatic stress.
So, what can we do if the system isn’t in place?
There are two areas that need to be addressed here are what the profession needs to do and what individual practitioners can do.
The profession needs to:
- Anticipate the mental health needs that will come with the response to this pandemic. Taking mental health matters seriously means proper funding of mental health programs, a trained workforce, and the infrastructure to treat those who will be most in need.
- Train mental health professionals on identifying who is at most risk for future mental health services (health care workers, those who have been hospitalized with the virus, those who have lost loved ones, etc.) and develop specific strategies for preventative outreach for those populations
- Develop and distribute marketing campaigns that normalize that people are going to have mental health responses to the pandemic and calls to action to developed resources for mental health services
- Advocate for government spending to build multidisciplinary networks to provide services to those in need
For individual practitioners
- One administration has a better history of looking at mental health as a need in the United States. Listen to our podcast episode on this
- Develop and maintain a good self-care structure as a personal need in order to help clients
- Socialize (virtually, physically distant, or however you can do so safely) with other mental health care workers to stay connected. Don’t isolate!
- Share on your social media about normal responses to pandemic issues and encourage people to reach out for mental health support BEFORE issues become too bad.
- Put pressure on your professional organizations to do the heavy lifting for the profession responsibilities listed above.