Opinion: Crisis Shows Importance of Mental Health, Caregiving

This Op-ed by Eve Byrd and Jennifer Olsen was originally published in the Atlanta-Journal Constitution.

During the coronavirus pandemic, the public has been inundated with mental health guidance for these stressful times. Each day, news stories share “Tips to Handle Stress During COVID-19” or “How to Tamp Down Anxiety During the Outbreak.”

Coping tips started well before May, which is national Mental Health Awareness Month, and extend far beyond the media. Human resource departments share them with employees. Mental health experts distribute them in Instagram Livestreams. And therapists post stress-reducing strategies along with their new telehealth hours. There are tips for parents, tips for children. Virtual mindfulness and meditation sessions are taught by exhausted teachers. Friends and relatives text each other encouragement and business colleagues start their emails with “How are you holding up?”

Whether it’s worry about getting the virus, losing a job, providing care for family members, financial fears, or difficulty finding food and bare necessities, one thing is certain: we’re all stressed. The elderly, people who live with chronic health conditions and mental illnesses and the caregivers that support them, have an even greater risk for anxiety, depression, or serious mental health issues associated with COVID-19.

Mental wellness has crept into the mainstream in ways that it never has before. The upside? The integration of the topic into our daily discourse helps destigmatize mental health issues, something that Rosalynn Carter, founder of the Carter Center’s Mental Health Program, and mental health experts have sought for decades.

Social stigma and associated discrimination surrounding mental ill health or persons with mental illnesses have hindered efforts to prevent and treat mental health disorders and elevate mental health care to be on par with physical health care in government policies and insurance coverage. Significant progress has been made, but more is needed in order to respond to the demand. One in four of us will experience a mental illness at some point, according to the World Health Organization.

The devastation from the pandemic will be felt far into the future, especially among our nation’s more than 40 million unpaid family caregivers. Caregivers are resilient, but COVID-19 is burdening them with a whole different level of stress and anxiety from school closures and threatened employment to reduced access to external support. This public health crisis is also creating first-time caregivers as people come home from the hospital or rehab earlier than expected to free-up beds or are now supporting people recovering from the virus. Caregivers, who often feel isolated, unappreciated, or inadequate, now face more critical decision-making about the health and the potential isolation of loved ones.

Isolation is one of the cruelest components of the outbreak. Because the virus is highly contagious, quarantines are required and those who are exposed or infected must be completely isolated, and often people feel isolation even when they are not alone (persons with mental illnesses, caregivers for persons with dementia). In recent years, health professionals in the U.S. and the United Kingdom have begun sounding the alarm about the damage caused by an increasingly isolated society. Former surgeon general Dr. Vivek Murthy stated that loneliness is “associated with a reduction in lifespan and a higher risk of heart disease, dementia and depression and anxiety. It also has a profound effect on our health and affects how we show up in the workplace, school and our communities.”

The “social distancing” or what we really mean is physical distancing that is required as part of the “flatten the curve” strategy does not come without consequences. Some experts have intentionally shifted to the more mental-health friendly “physical distancing” terminology because it’s becoming clear that humans require connection for well-being.

The expression “there is no health without mental health” is popular among mental health advocates. This sentiment has sprung into an unexpected reality for the public dealing with the COVID-19 crisis. People are galvanized to find organic ways to bolster mental health and well-being by staying connected. We’ve seen examples of neighbors checking in on the elderly, videos of strangers singing together on Italian balconies, and cars festooned with signs and balloons to celebrate a birthday of a quarantined neighbor and the common question and directive, “how are you and stay well” in all of written and verbal communication.

Will people continue to count mental wellness as part of overall health? Will companies continue to express this level of compassion for those experiencing mental health conditions? Will the increased attention to mental health be a silver lining for those who suffer and for caregivers? When COVID-19 is tamed, we hope that mental health, isolation, and caregiving will be viewed through a new lens by multiple stakeholders and the public.

As we mark Mental Health Awareness Month, we hope one of the better outcomes of this public health crisis is the ability for the general public, policymakers, healthcare providers and employers to readily recognize the problems of stress, anxiety and depression - which were present prior to the epidemic and will remain - and find a new commitment to not only address mental health as a priority, but to do so with compassion and understanding.

Eve Byrd is director of the Carter Center Mental Health Program, and Jennifer Olsen is executive director of the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers. Both programs were founded by former First Lady Rosalynn Carter.

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