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Pandemic takes toll on Americans’ mental health

Pandemic takes toll on Americans’ mental health
Pandemic takes toll on Americans’ mental health
Trudy Lieberman
Trudy Lieberman, Hoosier Health

Last year, on one of then-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,” said 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.

Mental Health America, the umbrella organization for the Indiana affiliate, has just released national survey results. Three southeast Indiana counties — Dearborn, Ripley and Switzerland — rank among 20 small and mid-size counties in the U.S. that have the highest proportion of their population reporting they were experiencing frequent thoughts of suicide or self-harm.

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 which provide food for the home-bound elderly. The issue of social isolation came up in every interview.

Meals-on-wheels officials told me that often a quick visit from the person delivering the meal who stops to talk for a few minutes is the only contact an elderly person has with the outside world. But during the pandemic, many programs delivered frozen meals which offered several advantages, but “it does cut down on the interaction” with seniors, said Lorena Fernandez who directs the meals program in Yakima, Wash.

Congregate meal programs where seniors often gathered for lunch were closed, which further cuts down on social interaction.

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,” he said. “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?

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.

What has been your experience accessing mental health care for yourself or a family member? Write to me at [email protected].

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