The need to address the pandemic’s impact on mental health

BY RANDALL BRECHBIEL, Guest Columnist
Posted 6/12/20

Now is not the time to ignore mental health.

While the easing of stay-at-home orders are under way across the country, the United States is still dealing with a lack of social interaction, …

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The need to address the pandemic’s impact on mental health

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Posted

Now is not the time to ignore mental health.

While the easing of stay-at-home orders are under way across the country, the United States is still dealing with a lack of social interaction, concerns over health, stress from job losses and more than 100,000 COVID-related deaths. Unfortunately, research and reporting shows that these factors are a burden on the mental health of the general public.

It is no surprise that, beyond the obvious impact on physical health and the colossal disruption to what was a strong economy, the COVID-19 pandemic is also inimical to mental health. It’s also no surprise that mental health is intertwined with both substance and domestic abuse and suicide.

But that doesn’t mean that these concerns should go unaddressed or ignored, because despite the strong will of the American people, the state of mental health in the U.S. is heading in the wrong direction.

According to a March survey, the American Psychiatric Association found that more than one-third of Americans say the pandemic is having a “serious impact” on their mental health. That impact is spread across all sectors — from the nurses fighting COVID-19 daily in hospitals to truck drivers having to deal with even more isolation than they faced prior to the pandemic.

More recently, reports show that those who are hurting are now, unfortunately, turning to prescription drugs. Last week, IQVIA released information that revealed prescriptions for anti-anxiety medications rose 10.2 percent in the U.S. in March 2020 compared to March 2019. Prescriptions for antidepressants rose 9.2 percent in the same period. The sizeable mental health care provider company, Ginger, told The Wall Street Journal in late May that its psychiatrists wrote 86 percent more prescriptions for psychotropic drugs, most of which being antidepressants, in March and April 2020 compared with January and February.

Those who were already under mental distress are in no better position. According to a May 28 CBS News report, calls to the Veteran Affair’s veteran crisis line are up more than 10 percent compared to May 2019. Rory Hamill, a decorated combat veteran in the Marines, turned to studying psychology and mentoring other veterans over the last few years. But the lockdowns prevented him from public speaking and going to school. Hamill noted in April that “My own personal hell has been reignited.”

Dr. Elinore McCance-Katz, Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services for Mental Health and Substance Use at the Department of Health and Human Services, recently told The Wall Street Journal that calls to a national mental-health hotline were up 1,000 percent over the same period last year. A model built by researchers at the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute in Texas that found if the unemployment rate rises to 20 percent and stays there for a year, there will be an additional 40,000 deaths due to suicide and drug overdose.

As the crisis line calls increase, so do predictions of increases in suicides and drug overdoses. That, in addition to domestic abuse spikes during the pandemic, have prompted some action from lawmakers. Last week, Sen. Thom Tillis wrote to Congressional appropriators, noting that “The imposition of stay-at-home orders has heightened the risk of domestic violence for many in North Carolina,” and that previous COVID-19 related legislation “neglected to provide additional resources to combat domestic violence.” The senator urged his colleagues to provide additional resources to combat domestic violence.

Other groups have made efforts to combat the mental health crisis as well. The American Soybean Association Director Brandon Wipf recently posted a letter to his fellow farmers, offering tips to respond “not only to our own stress, but to the stress being felt by those around us.” Wipf noted that: “The soybean industry launched a communications campaign in May to combat farm stress and offer #SoyHelp.”

While these efforts are greatly appreciated, they are not enough.

Last week, data collected by the Census Bureau and reported by The Washington Post shows that a third of Americans are showing signs of clinical anxiety or depression, and despite older adults being more at risk to the virus, rates of anxiety and depression were higher in younger adults, women and the poor. These are the same people facing the most economic hardship. An Ernst & Young report in collaboration with Parthenon found that, “Initial economic impact and job losses disproportionately concentrated among lower income workers and women.” It also noted that reopening will not be sufficient without overcoming psychological hurdles.

The U.S. has many battles on its plate, and COVID-19 does not discriminate. Suicide is a top-10 cause of death in America. In 2018, 67,367 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The number of drug overdose deaths decreased by 4 percent from 2017 to 2018, but progress on this front is threatened by the pandemic. Dr. McCance-Katz told The Wall Street Journal that in the instance that a second wave hits, and another shutdown is implemented, the mental health impact could be even worse. She says that the increase in number of suicides, fatal drug overdoses and instances of domestic abuse will be “broad, deep and long-lasting.”

Pandemic-related executive decisions and policy discussions must account for the mental health issues that arise during times of great stress and turmoil. The cause of this economic crisis can be sourced back to the self-imposed, and necessary steps that our country enacted to flatten the curve of the virus, but we are now under the cloud of a very real mental health pandemic. Our nation desperately needs to refocus away from fear and despair, and back on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Randy Brechbiel is a research and communications operator with experience within multiple levels of non-profit, campaign and grassroots organizations. After graduating college, Brechbiel gained versatile field research experience while working with one of the nation’s leading strategic communications firms, America Rising. During this time, Brechbiel covered a wide variety of issues in multiple states, and saw his work included in various publications and paid advocacy messaging efforts. Brechbiel returned to North Carolina in 2018 to manage full field operations in the southeastern part of the state for the North Carolina Republican Party.

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