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A lagging COVID-19 curve: The mental health toll

The COVID-19 pandemic’s psychological impacts highlight the need for a stronger mental health system.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has created countless challenges impacting millions. New Yorkers are suddenly grieving loved ones, missing social supports, in financial distress and facing continued uncertainty. Sadness, stress, anxiety and fear are common, and they significantly impact both physical and mental health.

New York state has flattened the curve of infections, and we’ve seen hospitalizations decline in recent weeks. We are now rallying to crush another curve — the psychological toll of the pandemic.

A worsening mental health crisis

Significant concerns about the state of our mental health preceded COVID-19.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five individuals has a serious mental illness, individuals with serious mental health issues pass away 25 years sooner than the general population, and two of three individuals with a mental health issue never seek treatment. Suicide was the second leading cause of death for individuals ages 10-34 and fourth for ages 35-54 in 2017 according to CDC data. Meanwhile, our nation continues to battle an opioid overdose epidemic. Inequalities in prevention, treatment and recovery services for mental and substance use disorders persist.

Unfortunately, early information suggests the pandemic is exacerbating these existing challenges. Experts across the nation have warned us about the serious long- and short-term mental health repercussions. A recent analysis by the Well Being Trust & Robert Graham Center for Policy Studies in Family Medicine and Primary Care estimates 75,000 additional “deaths from despair” – substance misuse and suicide – nationally. 

The unique mental health concerns of our healthcare workers

Healthcare workers have been presented with a unique set of difficulties. They shouldered much of the devastation of COVID-19 while working tirelessly to care for our loved ones. Staff in nursing homes often form years-long relationships with residents and have experienced much loss. Staff in hospitals were faced with an overwhelming surge of seriously ill patients while navigating the unknowns of a new virus with no cure. Many of these stresses continue today.

Hospitals and health systems are putting in place ground-breaking, creative work to identify mental health needs early and provide support to patients and staff. Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine is contributing to research designed to learn more about the mental health toll of the pandemic and inform community interventions.  Multiple hospitals, including University of Rochester Medical Center, Upstate University Hospital, Saratoga Hospital and NewYork-Presbyterian are educating the public and providing resources through various media outlets, including blogs and podcasts.

Programs to encourage well-being and coping of healthcare staff have also blossomed. Kaleida Health has assembled a COVID-19 Emotional Support Task Force to support staff across their health system. New York City Health + Hospitals is collaborating with the U.S. Department of Defense to help healthcare workers cope. NYU Langone has created support groups and established special rounds to touch base and connect staff to key resources.

Government agencies are also responding to mental health needs. Together with the healthcare community, the U.S. Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, New York State Office of Mental Health, New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and other organizations are working diligently to ensure New Yorkers are educated on mental health, to prevent and detect early mental distress, and to help people secure access to mental healthcare. Gov. Cuomo’s executive orders removing regulatory obstacles and consumer cost-sharing for telemedicine have opened many doors for access to mental healthcare. Due to these COVID-19-related directives, essential workers in New York state now have no out-of-pocket costs when seeking mental healthcare.

HANYS has been sharing resources and holding programs to offer statewide healthcare providers a forum to share ideas and innovate. We have also been working diligently to improve access to care by advocating for the removal of regulatory barriers, ensuring insurance coverage is provided for mental health services in the same way it is for other illnesses, such as a broken arm or cancer, and increasing access to mental health professionals by addressing workforce shortages. This work began long before COVID-19, and it continues to be a key priority in light of the consequences of this unprecedented pandemic.

There is more work to be done

We can all play a role in minimizing the impact of the lagging COVID-19 curve. As we observe this year’s Mental Health Awareness month, the need to protect mental health and ensure New Yorkers, including our healthcare and essential workers, have access to necessary support services is more critical than ever. This month and in the months ahead, we must continue to assess and address the hard-wired, systemic barriers to early identification and treatment of mental health illness or distress. Personally, we must also take advantage of opportunities to become educated about our own mental health, how to cope and how we can help others during this time of crisis.