Mental health is a medical issue. That is a plain fact. We are currently trying to look ahead to the flickering beam of light that leads to pandemic recovery and imagine what it will take to get us there. Health care professionals believe that the sooner we recognize the fact that mental health is a medical issue and needs to be addressed as such, the better off we will all be.
“Every time we talk about public health, we should talk about mental health. And every time we talk about Covid-19, we should talk about mental health,” Lisa Carlson, past president of the American Public Health Association and an executive administrator at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, recently underscored in a CNN report. Carlson explains that the more honesty and empathy we apply to our approach to mental health, the more the stigma is dismantled that deters those who seek it. The importance of this cannot be overstated. Many experts believe that mental health will be one of the biggest pandemic issues we will face in the year ahead.
“We don’t have a vaccine for our mental health like we do for our physical health,” Carlson tells CNN. “To come out of the challenges of mental health, we’re gonna need to work together to do that,” she adds.
The mental toll has been there from the outset, just harder for folks to see and accept. As the CNN report points out, stress and trauma have led to sleep disturbances and disorders. “People on the frontlines of health care, those who witnessed death and individuals who were stuck on cruise ships may experience post-traumatic stress that can lead to insomnia and nightmares,” writes Kristen Rogers. Such collective trauma contributes to “increased anxiety, depression and other mental health factors,” according to Chelsea Kronengold, the communications manager of the National Eating Disorders Association.
Certain disorders thrive in isolation brought on by the pandemic, such as eating disorders and substance abuse. “Drug relapses on opioids have spiked during the pandemic,” says CNN.
According to a Forbes magazine report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that “levels of adverse mental health conditions, substance use, and suicidal ideation in adults have increased.” As of June of 2020, “a full 40% of US adults reported struggling with mental health or substance abuse.” Even before the pandemic, mental health issues were a global concern. According to World Health Organization estimates, poor mental health costs the global economy $1 trillion annually in lost productivity.
The coronavirus pandemic has also multiplied the pressures on kids. Many have spent nearly a year in remote learning, isolated from their friends and classmates. Children and adolescents have been missing out on opportunities important for social development. According to an Associated Press report, “The portion of children’s emergency-room visits related to mental health was 44% higher in 2020, compared with the year before.”
Says Carlson, “I really hope that above all, this is really the moment when we break down barriers to talking about mental health, because I think the most important thing we can do — as professionals and in our families and in our communities — is to talk about it.” As pointed out in the CNN report, once recovery occurs, “What will likely still remain is the indelible impact of the pandemic weighing on the collective psyche.”
While we may have a way to go before a true sense of recovery is reached, it is also important that we focus on some positive changes in both perspective and priorities in relation to mental health that are even now beginning to take shape.
According to the Associated Press report, there is a growing movement toward offering mental health days to help children and parents “communicate and prevent struggling students from falling behind in school or ending up in crisis.” As an example of this, they point out legislation proposed in Utah and Arizona that would add “mental or behavioral health to the list of reasons students can be absent from class, similar to staying out with a physical illness.”
Another positive noted by CNN is that a growing number of people have been either reaching out for help or volunteering in the service of others. “Being kind has its own benefits for mental health,” they add.
“While most medical and public health efforts today focus on reducing risk factors for diseases, evidence has been mounting that enhancing psychological resilience may also make a difference,” Eric Kim, a research fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, proclaimed in a 2016 press release reported on by Time magazine. “Our new findings suggest that we should make efforts to boost optimism, which has been shown to be associated with healthier behaviors and healthier ways of coping with life challenges.”
According to Timothy R. Clark of Forbes, as far back as 1788, there were laws that have given expression to a moral position that employers had a “duty of care” to their employees. Today, that duty of care “has grown from a narrow scope of physical safety to something much broader — a holistic concept of safety.” The “conscience of the world regarding employee mental health and safety” has now seen a remarkable shift. “Emerging from our discontent has come a permanent change in our understanding of employee mental health and safety and what our duty of care is to each other,” he writes.
If there is a takeaway from all of this, it would be that we need to work together to meet the challenge this pandemic has presented to our mental health. “Humans are social creatures that crave and are entitled to connection and belonging,” writes Clark. “They have a perpetual need to bond and collaborate. Now is the time to crack ourselves open, reflect deeply on the duty of care we have for each other, and transform our workplaces.” I would add that it will also transform our lives.