Public health is a national priority. Social distancing and business closure requirements have been mandated in the interest of public health. However, these requirements raise new health concerns for those with mental health disorders and those at a higher risk of developing a mental health and/or substance use disorder.
Mental Health Awareness is recognized nationally in May to provide education about mental health disorders and to reduce the stigma that prevents people from seeking treatment. Mental health advocates, in particular, face a formidable set of challenges. Not only do mental health disorders continue to be a wide-spread concern, but their associated stigma carries far greater consequences. It’s critical that we act now.
Let’s Talk About the Facts – Mental Health Stressors During COVID-19
- “Social distancing” and quarantine laws have been mandated either comprehensively or partially by all 50 states. For those with mental health disorders and/or co-occurring disorders like substance abuse, this can lead to increased feelings of isolation, loneliness, and anxiety. “Suicidal thoughts and behaviors are associated with social isolation and loneliness.” (1) We are also learning that social distancing can play a major role in increasing mental health disorder symptoms and in triggering behavioral relapses.
- The economy took an unexpected downturn due to massive numbers of business closings. An unprecedented number of employees have been laid off, leaving millions at risk financially and in need of mental health care services. “Economic downturns are usually associated with higher suicide rates compared with periods of relative prosperity.” (2) The suicide rate is shown to increase not only during an economic crisis but after, as well, if it continues for a prolonged period of time. (JAMA) The re-opening of some businesses and public spaces nationally, compounds stress levels for the staff and their customers, both of whom are still wary of the contagion.
- The mental health stressors of COVID-19 are far reaching. Healthcare workers, including front line responders, nurses, psychologists and social workers, and hospital staff face a greater risk of developing a mental health disorder with additional work-related burdens. Previous pandemics suggest that, “healthcare workers might develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and substance use disorders.” (1) Those workers previously diagnosed with a disorder are especially vulnerable to experiencing symptoms again. “Concerns…are compounded by high rates of pre-existing mental health and substance use disorders in this population, (3) with physicians having rates of suicide among the highest of any profession.” (4)
- All age groups are affected by the impact of COVID-19. Adolescents face specific mental health challenges that need to be addressed. Their schedules have been disrupted, with schools closing for the remainder of the year and their extracurricular activities have been cancelled. During a time when peer relationships become crucial to their development, they have been physically distanced, resorting to connecting with their peers exclusively online. These disruptions and isolation from their peers can lead to depression and anxiety. (5)
Federally Funded Programs Are Not Enough
The White House and Congress have approved a $425 million stimulus bill to provide mental health and substance abuse services after the coronavirus pandemic. Disaster declarations have been approved by the President for all 50 states to apply for a crisis counseling program that provides emotional support and disaster recovery options for affected communities. (WJLA) While these measures may help to mitigate the predicted number of suicides, depression, anxiety, and increased drug use, they are not enough. We need to stop the stigma surrounding getting treatment for mental health disorders before any significant participation in federally funded programs can be achieved.
National Action is Needed to Stop the Stigma
In response, SAFE Project is remodeling its existing programs and creating new programs focused on stopping stigma surrounding mental health disorders. One example is the #NoShame in My Game Campaign: a public awareness campaign launched to stop stigma about mental health disorders and addiction that are barriers to teens and young adults who need treatment. #NoShame urges online communities to speak out against cyberbullying that can act as a trigger for depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and many more unwanted consequences. It also asks that teens and young adults be supportive when they hear their peers speaking about their disorders online and that they encourage those speaking to seek treatment.
SAFE Project also launched new Veterans’ Virtual Recovery Meetings. These online forums provide a safe and welcoming environment for veterans to speak about their recovery or substance addiction without fear of shaming. Our new Recovery Housing Operators Virtual Meetings as a way for leaders in the recovery housing community to brainstorm ways to stop the stigma that often impacts those living in recovery homes, that can negatively impact their recovery success.
Managing a widespread increase in mental health cases after COVID-19 is daunting but not impossible. Through stigma reduction programs provided by local communities and nonprofits, people with mental health disorders will be more likely to get the treatment that they need. For elimination to be possible, stigma awareness needs to begin with the individual and extend nationally from governmentally funded programs to anti-stigma campaigns directed at the population’s most vulnerable and in need of mental health disorder treatment.
Together, we can overcome the stigma. To learn more about mental health disorders and substance abuse stigma and take the pledge to help stop the stigma visit safeproject.us/noshame.
- Brooks SK, Webster RK, Smith LE, et al. The psychological impact of quarantine and how to reduce it: rapid review of the evidence. Lancet 2020;395:912-20. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(20)30460-8 pmid:32112714CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
- Oyesanya M , Lopez-Morinigo J , Dutta R . Systematic review of suicide in economic recession. World J Psychiatry. 2015;5(2):243-254. doi:10.5498/wjp.v5.i2.243PubMedGoogle ScholarCrossref
- Angres DH, McGovern MP, Shaw MF, Rawal P. Psychiatric comorbidity and physicians with substance use disorders: a comparison between the 1980s and 1990s. J Addict Dis2003;22:79-87. doi:10.1300/J069v22n03_07 pmid:14621346CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
- Kalmoe MC, Chapman MB, Gold JA, Giedinghagen AM. Physician Suicide: A Call to Action. Mo Med2019;116:211-6.pmid:31527944PubMedGoogle Scholar