Our Mental Health Pandemic

My recent article, “How to Avoid a Mental Health Pandemic and What We Can Do to Help,” focused on the importance of addressing mental health issues during the Covid-19 Pandemic. This article describes a potential solution that communities might consider in addressing current mental health issues and those we are likely to face in the future.

There have been numerous virus outbreaks in the past. Michael Greger, M.D. offers an excellent overview Pandemics: History & Prevention. Yet, this is the first time in human history where a health pandemic has not only spread throughout the world but with our modern media, we can instantly receive information about what is going on everywhere, which can increase our anxiety and worry.

As I write this article on April 23, 2020, there were 2,670,536 cases of Covid-19 world-wide, 851,586 cases in the U.S., 37,707 cases in California, and 8 cases reported in Mendocino County where Carlin and I live. All these numbers are expected to increase and experts tell us that it will take many months, if not years before we have preventive vaccines and treatments.

The pandemic itself, as well as the measures necessary to keep people safe, have created increased levels of anxiety, worry, irritability, anger, and frustration among millions of people everywhere. 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. This was before Covid-19 hit us.

Physical distancing, which is now required in most 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,

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.

Just as the physical aspects (sickness, deaths, testing, etc.) of the Covid-19 pandemic have touched everyone, so too, has it impacted everyone’s mental health. In an article in the April 13, 2020 issue of New England Journal of Medicine titled “Mental Health and the Covid-19 Pandemic,” Betty Pfefferbaum, M.D., J.D. and Carol S. North, M.D., M.P.E. offer this warning:

Uncertain prognoses, looming severe shortages of resources for testing and treatment, imposition of unfamiliar public health measures that infringe on personal freedoms, large and growing financial losses, and conflicting messages from authorities are among the major stressors that undoubtedly will contribute to widespread emotional distress and increased risk for psychiatric illness associated with Covid-19.

The doctors go on to say,

Public health emergencies may affect the health, safety, and well-being of both individuals (causing, for example, insecurity, confusion, emotional isolation, and stigma) and communities (owing to economic loss, work and school closures, inadequate resources for medical response, and deficient distribution of necessities). These effects may translate into a range of emotional reactions (such as distress or psychiatric conditions), unhealthy behaviors(such as excessive substance use), and noncompliance with public health directives (such as home confinement and vaccination) in people who contract the disease and in the general population. Extensive research in disaster mental health has established that emotional distress is ubiquitous in affected populations — a finding certain to be echoed in populations affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Because we are all impacted physically, mentally, emotionally, and economically by the Covid-19 Pandemic, in some ways, we’re all honorary members of the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) whether we are aware of it or not. The way we will stop the virus from spreading is for everyone in the community to think of others, not just themselves. We wear cotton masks, primarily, to keep each of us from giving the virus to someone else, since few have been tested yet and infected people can spread the virus even when they don’t yet have symptoms. The masks should say, “I wear my mask to keep you safe.”

What would happen if communities took the same approach—coming together to help each other–in addressing the mental health pandemic? I have an audacious idea.

I’ll start with a few premises that are at the foundation of my plan.

Premise 1: We are in a new world now and have to think outside the box if we’re going to stop the virus pandemic and the mental health pandemic.

Premise 2: While the Federal and State governments can help, we must address these issues at a local level.

Premise 3: Those who survive and thrive will need to have “mental health skills” since we are likely to be facing other threats in the future.

Premise 4: No matter how much money we spend, or how many services we provide locally, there will never be enough mental health professionals to meet the demand.

The dictionary defines audacious as “showing a willingness to take surprisingly bold risks. Here’s my audacious plan:

  • Just as we need to test the population to see who has been infected by the Covid-19 virus, we need to assess the population to see whose mental health has been most impacted.
  • Train one-thousand people in our county whose mental health has been impacted by Covid-19 to become “Post-Covid Mental Health Practitioners.” These are the people who already have “skin in the game” and would be greatly motivated to help themselves and others.
  • These people would form the core of connected networks of practitioners who would join with those of us already working in the field to train the remaining people in the county.

I believe there are numerous benefits to the plan including the following:

  • The plan brings our communities together at a time when many people’s fear causes them to disconnect in an attempt to protect themselves.
  • More and more people are using online platforms like Zoom to learn new skills. We could begin training on Zoom now and later add live face-to-face training.
  • In our community, we are already planning to train law enforcement personnel and other first responders. We could expand the training to begin working with groups from the community.
  • Trained people not only can help themselves and their families deal with the present mental health consequences of Covid-19 but will prepare them to deal with other stressors that will likely come in the future.
  • The world is going to need more and more people with mental health training. This training could position people for new jobs and provide economic growth for our local communities.
  • Once we’ve shown this model is successful, we could share best practices with other communities throughout the world who could build on our success.
  • We could draw from the best teachers in our communities, and beyond, to teach the skills most needed for addressing mental health issues in this new world we all find ourselves living in.

I look forward to your comments and suggestions. You can contact me by emailing me (be sure to respond to my spam arrest filter when writing for the first time).


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