Toward the end of May, three months into the COVID-19 pandemic, I opened an email from long-time friends who had tragically lost their son-in-law to complications from an advanced staph infection. The email began: “We received a call from our oldest daughter, who has been isolated in her place for months. Today she called…to tell us how lonely she is feeling and how difficult it is for her to rise to the occasion as a mother and give herself fully to her son. This is really tough as parents to not be there for her.”
I had already been thinking about the psychological ramifications of this pandemic. In March and early April, I lived through the passing of my wife of almost 49 years from cancer, complicated by the difficulty of navigating the healthcare system during this time.
At once, these experiences both personalized the issue and broadened my perspective. This is touching all of us, well beyond the patients and families directly suffering from COVID-19, affecting us in myriad ways based on the many roles we each play and the personal circumstances we face.
Stresses and Shortages: A System in Distress
The facts are clear. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that over half of Americans (53%) report the coronavirus crisis is harming their mental health – a marked increase from 39% just two months earlier. Factors include isolation, job loss / financial insecurity, disruptions to daily routines, persistent anxiety, the loss of socialization (especially for our young children) and the effects of the disease itself, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Post-Intensive Care Syndrome (PICS) and grief for lost family members, many of whom died alone.
Moreover, our current healthcare system is not prepared to sustain an influx of mental health needs. Lisa M. Carlson, President of the American Public Health Association (APHA), captured the problem succinctly, noting that the current disjointed mental health infrastructure lacks cohesive planning while facing a current shortage of mental health professionals, along with a shortage of clinics, training and education programs. Even more concerning, the World Health Organization found that while 89% of countries have included mental and psychological healthcare as part of their COVID-19 response plans, only 17% have adequate funding for these measures. This exposes an alarming global gap: While we are aware of the critical need to address mental healthcare, we are woefully underprepared to meet the demand.
The uncertainty of how quickly COVID-19 can be contained merely adds to the stress, but whatever that timeframe, we know for certain that the psychological effects will continue well beyond it. And yet, as reported by The Washington Post, quoting online therapy company Talkspace’s co-founder and CEO Oren Frank: “What’s shocking...is how little leaders are talking about this (the increasing demand for psychological services). There are no White House briefings about it. There is no plan.”
Sound the Alarm – For Today and Tomorrow
So, what planning is needed to confront this impending crisis?
Health organizations must join forces. Right now, healthcare providers and psychological organizations are dealing with the immediacy of this crisis. They are sounding the alarm for gaps in the readiness for current and future mental health response. They are addressing the escalating need as much as possible. But within the current flurry of activity, we cannot lose sight of the future. A consortium of organizations needs to collaborate to develop a strategic blueprint that addresses the present – and looming – mental health crisis, backed up by clear and consistent communications to inspire real action that will prepare us for the coming years of need.
Address now to prepare for the future. For more than 45 years of my professional life, I have been a communicator. Those of us in similar roles can help underscore the urgent need for psychological services we now face – one that will grow more pressing in the foreseeable future. Only if we lay the groundwork for the future today, while addressing the crisis unfolding in front of us, will we be prepared to face the years of mental trauma that could lie ahead for so many of us.
Include diverse perspectives. This will take significant organization. We need additional minds and diverse perspectives to address this issue. It may require a joint effort between current psychological organizations and the universities and colleges that can train these professionals. At a time when COVID-19 is perhaps redefining the job skills that will be in future demand, psychological and psychosocial professionals will be high on that list. In addition to attracting new students to the profession, the industry needs best practices established for virtual counseling, a coordinated effort to fund public psychosocial health, and a public dialogue about the urgent and ongoing psychological toll.
To inspire action as we face the widespread psychological ramifications of the current pandemic, we, as communicators, need to drive the national dialogue around this critical issue. This calls for a consistent and coordinated effort to partner with the right experts: preparing now so that we have the trained professionals, the infrastructure and the protocols needed to address the fallout from this pandemic for many years to come.
If you or your organization is ready to become a catalyst for that action, give us a call. We're ready to help you lead the charge.