You may know that May was Mental Health Month, which is very apropos because in the United States, and even the world at large, the global pandemic brought on by the Coronavirus has created a mental health crisis which is likely to last well after the pandemic itself is declared over. The United Nations has been talking about it at the global level and newspapers, our government, companies, websites, even insurance companies are posting articles, supportive information, resources, and links to apps recognizing that the COVID-19 crisis is having an impact on the mental health of many people.
I was honored to participate last week as a panelist in the 2nd in a series of webinars for healthcare professionals related to what we are learning about COVID-19. This webinar was entitled COVID-19 Advocacy: Lessons Learned & Opportunities Ahead. There were five of us, all experienced health advocates from around the country, each with broad-based practices but also different areas of expertise, sharing some of the evolving changes we have seen since our last webinar in early April. My area of expertise is Mental Health and Substance Abuse. I spoke about how the pandemic crisis has caused anxiety and depression to rise dramatically in not only those who have struggled with mental health and substance abuse previously but also for many who have not. Most people have at a minimum felt some anxiety because of the unknown aspects of COVID-19 itself, the potential for its impact on jobs, and on the economy. But if this is a feeling that you have not been accustomed to it can be very discombobulating. Other common emotions are feelings of grief and fear. Grief for the obvious, such as people who have died, but also for missed experiences such as graduations or long-awaited trips of a lifetime. Fear of the unknown aspects of COVID-19, the fact that it is so contagious and can clearly strike people so easily, make them extremely ill, cause them to go to the hospital and even the ICU, even kill them and we do not seem to be able to beat it regardless of how much money one has. And if you are poor and of color, it is often even more difficult to access health care resources.
Of course, depression and insomnia are also common. Social distancing and isolation exacerbate these problems. For those who already struggled with substance abuse, the COVID-19 crisis has created both a structural and emotional crisis. The nature of the crisis exacerbates the underlying anxiety and depression, which the majority of those with substance abuse disorder diagnoses struggle with, and social isolation makes it worse. The health care system that they rely on has been pulled out from underneath them because it has had to focus on only COVID-19 and emergent cases. And the support system that substance abuse patients use has had to retreat and try to reform in virtual ways, not always as successfully but efforts have been made. As a result, it has been a struggle to remain sober for many and professionals in the field indicate that they expect to see a huge demand for their service at higher intensity levels as the country begins to open up.
Data from different sources looking at the month of March 2020 alone, but measuring different populations and specific medications, all point to significant increases in new prescriptions for antianxiety, antidepressant, and anti-insomnia medications. This does not take into account increases in existing prescription dosages. The common conclusion was that our population is experiencing a significant mental health problem resulting from the COVID-19 crisis. One concern is that some of the medications prescribed especially for anxiety and insomnia are potentially addictive so there may be some fallout as things return to normal and people try to get off of their medications.
What can you do if you are struggling with anxiety, depression, fear, grief, insomnia? First is to realize that you are NOT alone. A Forbes survey conducted last month found that half of Americans say that they are suffering from mental health issues. This spans all ages! Kids feel displaced by not having regular structured school schedules and older adults feel cut off and isolated as people try to protect them from exposure to COVID-19. In fact, social isolation has had a negative effect on the cognitive function of many older adults for this reason. Some people are experiencing a sense of heightened anxiety now as states are opening up likely because increased exposure to others might increase the risk of catching the virus and not everyone is conscientious about wearing masks out of concern for the health of others. Here are some things you can do to take care of your own mental health :
One of the silver linings of this troubling time is that I have seen generosity and compassion as people reached out to help others. And people are actually talking, not just looking down at devices. Please take care of your mental health, and think of others too. Smile. Say “hello”. Enjoy the spring sunshine and flowers. And help keep the curves flat. Wear a mask!
Take care and stay healthy!
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