The COVID-19 Mental Health Crisis Is Coming. Help Is Already Here.

As we continue to practice social distancing and attempt to flatten the curve of the COVID-19 pandemic, the focus is on protecting our physical health and preventing an overwhelming toll on many of our medical and surgical hospitals. 

But as new cases diminish, effective treatments become reality, and – eventually – a vaccine becomes available, there will be a shift in the concern for our long-term collective well-being from physical health to mental health. 

In many ways, it’s already happening.  

Millions have lost their jobs, had their hours reduced, been sent into furlough, or been forced to take pay cuts. Billions have gone into isolation in order to slow the spread of the virus, physically distancing from loved ones who may be more vulnerable. There’s no way to predict exactly if or when things will return to the way they once were, and virtually everyone is grappling with an uncertain reality that takes place on an unknown timeline. 

Scientists have pointed to other crises such as the 9/11 attacks and the 2002-03 SARS pandemic and noted the surge in diagnoses of anxiety and depression. Researchers have predicted that this crisis could lead to an increased risk of suicide due to economic stress, isolation, and the surge in firearm sales in the United States.  

As instructive as it can be to look at previous large-scale tragedies to predict the mental health crises that lie ahead, this feels different. Earthquakes, famines, and terrorist attacks have boundaries. Global pandemics don’t. 

Research exists on how humans recover from quarantine, mass destruction, and critical stressors, but not on all three at once. 

“This is a mass community disaster, but it is also a little bit like terrorism in that the fear component is there, ongoing fear,” Elana Newman, who researches trauma and disaster mental health at the University of Tulsa, told CNBC in March.  

Though a mental health crisis may lie ahead, resources are available to help, and larger projects are in the early stages of being scaled. Many states have launched free mental health hotlines for those who are struggling with the psychological effects of COVID-19. The Central Health Authority of China and various national academic societies integrated mental health crisis interventions into the general deployment of disease prevention and treatment, and two surveys have indicated that these measures reduced the negative psychological outcomes of the pandemic there. Using these results to create an international consortium to address mental health challenges in the countries hit hardest by the pandemic could work wonders. 

Organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) have put together resource and information guides that contain frequently asked questions.

The COVID-19 pandemic is shining new light on the need for more mental health services. And that’s a challenge we’re all ready to meet head-on. 

For more information, Timberline Knolls has set up an online list of virtual resources and support available to navigate through these difficult times.