Experts warn COVID-19 is pushing America into a looming mental health crisis

The suicides of two New York health-care workers further highlight the risks in the country, especially to those combating the pandemic.

Published: 05th May 2020 01:18 PM  |   Last Updated: 05th May 2020 01:18 PM   |  A+A-

Anxiety, Mental health

For representational purposes


WASHINGTON DC: The fast-spreading coronavirus pandemic, with daily mounting deaths, social isolation and widespread psychological trauma caused due to fear of economic fallout, is pushing America into a historic wave of mental health problems including depression, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide, federal agencies and experts warned.

But just as the initial coronavirus outbreak caught hospitals unprepared, the country's mental health system -- vastly underfunded, fragmented and difficult to access before the pandemic -- is even less prepared to handle this coming surge, The Washington Post reported.

"That's what is keeping me up at night," Susan Borja, who leads the traumatic stress research program at the National Institute of Mental Health, was quoted as saying.

"I worry about the people the system just won't absorb or won't reach. I worry about the suffering that's going to go untreated on such a large scale," Borja added.

The Post, citing a Kaiser Family Foundation poll, stated that nearly half of Americans report that the coronavirus crisis is harming their mental health. A federal emergency hotline for people in emotional distress registered a more than 1,000 per cent increase in April compared with the same time last year. Roughly 20,000 people texted that hotline, run by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, last month.

Online therapy company Talkspace reported a 65 per cent jump in clients since mid-February. Text messages and transcribed therapy sessions collected anonymously by the company show coronavirus-related anxiety dominating patients' concerns.


"People are really afraid," Talkspace co-founder and CEO Oren Frank told the Post.

The increasing demand for services, he said, follows almost exactly the geographic march of the virus across the United States. "What's shocking to me is how little leaders are talking about this. There are no White House briefings about it. There is no plan."

The suicides of two New York health-care workers further highlight the risks in the country, especially to those combating the pandemic.

And yet, out of the trillions of dollars Congress passed in emergency coronavirus funding, only a tiny portion is allocated for mental health. Community behavioural health centers -- which treat populations most at risk -- are struggling to stay financially solvent and have begun closing programs.

"If we don't do something about it now, people are going to be suffering from these mental health impacts for years to come," Paul Gionfriddo, president of the advocacy group Mental Health America, told the Post.

That could further harm the economy as stress and anxiety debilitate some workers and further strain the medical system as people go to emergency rooms with panic attacks, overdoses and depression, he said further.

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Using such estimations, a Texas nonprofit organisation-- Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute -- created models that suggest if unemployment amid the coronavirus pandemic ends up rising 5 per cent points to a level similar to the Great Recession, an additional 4,000 people could die from suicide and an additional 4,800 from drug overdoses.

But if unemployment rises by 20 per cent points -- to levels recorded during the 1930s Great Depression -- suicides could increase by 18,000 and overdose deaths by more than 22,000, according to Meadows.

"These projections are not intended to question the necessity of virus mitigation efforts," cautioned authors of the Meadows report, "but rather to inform health system planning."

Just as the country took drastic steps to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed by infections, experts say, it needs to brace for the coming wave of behavioural health needs by providing widespread mental health screenings, better access to services through telehealth, and a sizable infusion of federal dollars, the newspaper reported.

So far, more than 67,000 people have died in the US and more than a million have been infected. An internal US government document predicts 3,000 daily coronavirus deaths in the country by early June, nearly double from the current level of about 1,750, according to The New York Times.

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