Why We Must Address The Mental Health Effects Of The COVID-19 Crisis

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The rapid onset of COVID-19 and the widespread scale of its effects have been traumatic. Current federal government projections predict that millions of Americans will contract the virus this year, and many thousands are expected to lose their lives.

Whether one falls ill and recovers or never contracts the virus, almost everyone will come away from this crisis bearing some type of emotional or mental trauma. More than ever before, mental health coverage under private and public insurance plans is urgently needed to restore the vitality of our nation.

The crippling loss of work and wages, the fear of social contact, and the tragedy of sick or deceased loved ones are just a few of the experiences that will continue to haunt us. When we are able to leave our homes again, and society can go back to the normalcy, we mustn’t ignore the pain that we all have gone through. When the dawn of finally beating the invisible enemy that is COVID-19 is on the horizon, we must continue to fight the mental and emotional battles that have been given to us.

According to the National Center for PTSD, about one-in-12 people in the United States are diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder at some point in their lives. Typically, when thinking about PTSD, one thinks of our veterans who fought for our country. The unfortunate reality is that this disorder affects many more people than one might expect- people who suffered their trauma right here at home.

PTSD does not discriminate based on age, race, gender, life circumstance, or even the trauma that it stems from. The experience of living through this outbreak and the physical, economic, and emotional trauma will inevitably create a whole host of new people being diagnosed with PTSD. Programs are necessary to help those who will develop PTSD, including the development of centers where they can go to receive the care they need.

Several specialized populations are at a higher risk of suffering from a mental illness as a result of the outbreak. Healthcare workers who have spent the last weeks exhausting themselves to save us are especially at risk.

They watch as their co-workers become infected, wondering if they will be next. They fear going home and exposing their families to the virus. They lack adequate equipment to keep themselves safe as they treat patients. They live through losing patients day in and day out.

All of this will have a devastating effect on their emotional health. Clearly this population will require specialized services and it is imperative that we commence developing these programs now.

Also at risk are our community’s first responders. As police officers, firefighters, and paramedics spend their days responding to the effects of this pandemic, they are putting themselves at a higher risk of contracting the virus. At the end of March, an NYPD official said on CNN that he estimates that over 15 percent of the force has the virus, and the number is growing.

Members of law-enforcement are already predisposed to developing PTSD, with studies finding that over 30 percent of this group will be diagnosed at some point in their lives. The mental trauma of this outbreak on our first responders will be substantial, and we must be prepared for it. We need to fund enhanced screening and assessment of traumatic stress and traumatic stress-related conditions to identify those who need help and assure they receive the care that they need.

Essential workers who are not healthcare professionals or first responders, such as those preparing takeout food, grocery store cashiers, delivery drivers, and postal workers, are at risk of experiencing severe mental health conditions. Many of these individuals make only minimum wage and do not have health insurance.

These people deal with the stress of putting themselves and their families at risk, often without the guarantee that they can receive the healthcare they may need. We must recognize that all essential workers are at risk of suffering from PTSD, anxiety, and depression as a result of this ordeal.

Many non-essential workers isolating at home still may suffer mental trauma. We are living through unprecedented experiences. My son is a healthcare professional on the frontlines, and I have trouble sleeping at night thinking of what he is going through. Many of us are suffering the economic effects of being out of work. Parents who have children with disabilities are struggling to get the resources their kids need.

We all know people who are sick or dying because of this virus. Reports of domestic violence incidents have spiked as women and men are trapped at home with their abusive partner. Teenagers, a group highly susceptible to anxiety and depression, are missing out on important milestones, such as prom and graduation.

The needs of these groups must be addressed. We must provide mental health services for employees and those in the community struggling with trauma, anxiety, isolation, and grief over the loss of loved ones. We should work with Employee Assistance Programs [EAP] and must train more primary care providers to address the mental health needs of our nation. These providers can be trained to identify cases, counsel mild to moderately distressed patients, and refer more serious cases to an appropriate specialist.

We need to encourage funding sources, both private foundations and corporations, to contribute to these training programs. By increasing the knowledge base of those in health and allied health positions, we will increase the manpower able to provide services.

Every day that this crisis exists will result in an increase in the need for mental and behavioral interventions for Americans who are suffering. Our country was slow to respond to the crisis. We must make sure not to make that same mistake again when it comes to the mental and emotional health of our communities.

Ann Brancato has decades of experience as a healthcare executive in New York hospitals/human service agencies and is currently a candidate to represent New York’s 9th Assembly District.

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