Last year on one of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s daily coronavirus briefings, he asked his audience, “How are you, really?”
He wasn’t inquiring about the health of viewers who might be recovering from the virus. He was asking listeners and viewers to think seriously about their mental health. Were they experiencing depression, anxiety, or other symptoms that might have been triggered by the isolation and social distancing that keeping safe required?
That question undoubtedly made the audience think and some a bit uncomfortable. For it’s fair to say that mental health concerns such as anxiety, depression, and even suicidal thoughts have crept into the thinking of thousands of Americans this past year.
Mental health diagnoses, of course, are nothing new, but “if something has come out of the pandemic, it’s that a light has been shown on mental illness,” says David Berman, vice president for harm reduction and crisis stabilization at Mental Health America of Indiana, an advocacy and policy group. The pandemic has produced “one more set of external factors that have triggered or exacerbated existing mental health issues and new symptoms.” Berman called it “a perfect storm of external influences that have caused a mental health pandemic on top of COVID.”
Berman cited not only the pandemic itself, but also social unrest, the social justice movement and political turmoil, which have made people anxious, and he noted “these concurrent circumstances have been unprecedented.”
Mental Health America offers an online self-screening tool (https://screening.mhanational.org/screening-tools/) for people to gauge their mental health status. In Indiana, nearly 55,000 people used the tool to assess their mental health between May 2020 and the end of July this year. That was a 460% increase in the number of Hoosiers taking the test between May 2019 and July 2020. The top three conditions that showed up from the self-screening assessment were depression, anxiety, and bi-polar disorders.
Social isolation is one of the biggest factors related to depression and suicidal behavior, and there has been plenty of social isolation this past year as people stayed inside and away from family and friends in an effort to avoid contracting the virus.
I recently spoke to several directors of meals-on-wheels programs across the country that provide food for the home-bound elderly. The issue of social isolation came up in every interview.
Even though the virus has not gone away some of the triggers for anxiety and depression may have changed, Berman said. “At first it was anxiety related to the virus. Now it has to do with anxiety and concerns about going back to work.” Are co-workers vaccinated? Will they wear a mask? Will there be breakthrough cases? “There’s a lot of fear about that.”
It’s likely that mental health effects from the pandemic will be around for years. So what should people do if they are having symptoms of mental illness? In Indiana there is a FEMA-funded disaster counseling program and a website offering the Be Well Crisis Helpline which people can access through the 211 number service. Crisis counselors give advice and referrals, and the website https://bewellindiana.com/. offers resources for food, housing, employment, and tax preparation help.
Mental health has often been the stepchild in the health care family. For decades now, shiny, new and very expensive medical equipment marketed to bring luster (and especially paying patients) to hospitals have ruled the day in health care. You almost never see TV and radio ads for a hospital’s mental health services.
Maybe, just maybe, though, the trauma brought on by the pandemic will give mental health a better seat at the table.
Trudy Lieberman, a journalist for 40 years, is a fellow at the Center for Advancing Health. She was recently director of the health and medical reporting program at the Graduate School of Journalism, City University of New York and had a long career at Consumer Reports specializing in insurance, health care and health care financing.
Trudy Lieberman, a journalist for 40 years, is a fellow at the Center for Advancing Health. Has the Affordable Care Act impacted your family? Write to Trudy at [email protected]. Send comments to [email protected].