How to Avoid a Mental Health Pandemic

I’ve been working as a mental health professional since I graduated from U.C. Berkeley in 1968, but my interest began much earlier. When I was five years old my father had “a nervous breakdown,” which is what they called a mental health crisis back in 1949. He had become increasingly depressed because he couldn’t find work to support his family. In desperation, he took an overdose of sleeping pills and was committed to Camarillo State Mental Hospital. Though he survived physically, our lives were never the same. I grew up wondering what happened to my father, whether it would happen to me, and what I could do to help other families avoid the devastation that his absence had on our lives.

I went on to college and later medical school. I had planned to be a psychiatrist but found the medical training I was getting left out the social and community aspects of mental health. I dropped out and later went back to school getting a Master’s degree in Social Work and a Ph.D. in International Health. My doctoral-level training helped me better understand the risks of infectious diseases like influenza, the modern diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, and how both were connected to diseases of the mind including anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorders, and depression. My dissertation examined the different ways men and women experience depression. My finding were published as a book, Male vs. Female Depression: Why Men Act Out and Women Act In. 

Now we are in the midst of a world-wide pandemic and millions of people all over the world are dealing with Covid-19. As I write this today (April 17, 2020) there are 2,172,031 confirmed cases worldwide and 671,425 cases in the United States according to Johns Hopkins University Corona Virus Resource Center (https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/). All experts agree that these numbers will continue to rise and these simple words, from doctors on the front line, remind us of our responsibilities:

As challenging as the Covid-19 medical challenge is, there may an even bigger challenge we will soon face unless we take action now. “We are in the midst of an epidemic and possible pandemic of anxiety and distress,” says Robert T. London, M.D.

If you, like me, have suffered from anxiety and depression in your life, the Covid-19 pandemic is likely making these problems worse. You’re not alone. Andrew Solomon is a professor of medical clinical psychology at Columbia University Medical Center. Here’s what he says in a recent opinion article in the New York Times: “For nearly 30 years — most of my adult life — I have struggled with depression and anxiety. While I’ve never felt alone in such commonplace afflictions — the family secret everyone shares — I now find I have more fellow sufferers than I could have ever imagined. Within weeks, the familiar symptoms of mental illness have become a universal reality.”

It certainly makes sense to mobilize our medical health professionals to deal with the Covid-19 crisis. Though the statistics of illness and death are grim, most health-care professionals believe that one country, one city, one community after another will reach its peak, assuming we continue to practice physical distancing, and things will get better. Eventually, there will be a vaccine to prevent future outbreaks.

But how do we deal with the immediate and long-term effects of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorders? We’re rightly focused on getting protective masks and other gear for doctors and nurses on the front lines, but what are we doing to help them deal with the crippling emotional challenges they must face every day?

Mental health has often been seen as less important than physical health. Yet, from my years of experience, I don’t believe we can separate the two. When I’ve been physically sick, as I was recently with pneumonia, I was also anxious and depressed. And when I’ve been anxious, depressed, and stressed, it impacts my physical health.

In the midst of the crisis, New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo talked about the importance of mental health services. “No one’s really talking about this. We’re all concerned about the immediate critical need, the life, and death of the immediate situation, but don’t underestimate the emotional trauma that people are feeling and the emotional health issues.”

The New York governor has taken the lead in this area and mental health professionals have responded. The governor said that anyone currently struggling with their mental health can call the hotline and schedule a free appointment with a professional. “Again, God bless the 6,000 mental health professionals, who are doing this 100% free, on top of whatever they have to do in their normal practice,” Cuomo said. “I am sure in their normal practice they’re busy, this is really an extraordinary step by them.”

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 1 in 5 people in the U.S. suffer from mental illness, and 1 in 25 from severe mental illness. Social distancing, which is now required in many regions across the country to slow the spread of the virus, can complicate and exacerbate some mental illnesses, including anxiety and depression. Dr. Ken Duckworth, medical director of NAMI, says. “So, if you already have an anxiety disorder, or obsessive-compulsive disorder, or unstable housing, or you’re already isolated, this is going to compound your problems.”

Every community should be addressing mental health issues now. Those that get ahead of the curve will find it will help everyone now and in years to come. In my own community, I’m seeing an increase of people coming to me with irritability and anger issues. There seems to also be an increase in relationship stresses which can lead to domestic violence. Too much togetherness can be stressful.

The opposite is true as well. Social isolation generates at least as much escalation of mental illness as does fear of the virus itself. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychologist, found that social isolation is twice as harmful to a person’s physical health as obesity. Researchers have determined that “a lonely person’s immune system responds differently to fighting viruses, making them more likely to develop an illness.”

“You might feel more on edge than usual, angry, helpless, or sad. You might notice that you are more frustrated with others or want to completely avoid any reminders of what is happening,” said the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). “It’s important to note that we are not helpless in light of current news events.”

We may be physically distancing, but we don’t have to be socially distancing. Reach out to someone. If you’re feeling stressed and depressed or having any difficulties, reach out. If you’re feeling OK, reach out to others who may be having a more difficult time. We’re all in this together and we need to stay connected.

I’m starting a new program to train health care workers who want to help stem the tide of this coming crisis. If you’re interested, drop me a note to [email protected] (be sure to respond to my spam arrest filter when writing for the first time) and put “training program” in the subject line.

If you found this article helpful, you can read more on my blog, https://menalive.com/the-blog/.

Originally published on Men Alive

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