9 October 2021
There’s no doubt that COVID-19 brought seismic shifts to everyday life for each of us and how we operate as a global society. We have struggled, individually and collectively, to understand the virus that has upended our world; to sort through the plethora of information—and misinformation—that has guided our response; to gauge its risk to our families and communities; and to develop strategies for coping with new demands, fears and dilemmas.
The optimistic among us are hoping that the worst of the pandemic is over. In the United States, most kids are back in school, many of us have reported back to our workplaces and life has regained at least some of its pre-2020 cadence. But COVID-19, which has ruled our lives for more than a year and a half, is exacerbating another insidious pandemic: that of mental illness.
Mental health issues are not new, but the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly accelerated the depth and breadth of the crisis we face. In 2019, before the pandemic, one in five adults in the United States experienced mental illness—most often depression or an anxiety disorder—and half of Americans were expected to confront a mental health issue during their lifetime.1 Today those numbers are dramatically higher, with some studies showing that as many as 80 per cent of Americans are struggling with anxiety, depression, grief or isolation.
This is not surprising, given how COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc on our “new normal”, leaving a widening trail of devastation and grief across the globe. Since December 2019, COVID-19 has killed more than 4.8 million people worldwide, and there have been more than 236 million cases reported. It is likely that millions of cases have gone undocumented. We know that those numbers will continue to rise, although hopefully—with luck and vigilance—at a slower rate.
The impacts of this extreme public health crisis, coupled with the related economic and social upheaval, will reverberate for decades, if not a generation. As a parent and psychologist, I think about the impact of this pandemic on children around the world. Most children were forced to trade their in-school experiences for homebound remote classes, missing out on the social-emotional learning that is critical to healthy child and adolescent development. All of us will continue to navigate our grief over what we lost during this time: jobs, businesses and livelihoods; cherished time with loved ones; and more than anything else, beloved members of our families and communities who were taken from us too soon.
But COVID-19 did more than increase the prevalence of mental health issues; it also accelerated positive momentum in our communities to raise awareness about these issues and increased accessibility to crucial support and services for those affected.
First and foremost, the widespread impacts of COVID-19 have resulted in more open dialogue on and greater knowledge of mental health than ever before. So many of us know someone who is managing increased stress, anxiety or other psychological problems as a result of the pandemic, causing us to seek out support from our families, friends and colleagues as well as treatment and services from mental health-care providers.
The pandemic accelerated long-time efforts in the professional mental health and physical health-care communities to destigmatize mental health issues and normalize the search for help for these kinds of problems. There is no health without mental health, and we must address physical and mental wellness in equal measure. Across diverse communities and industries, we are seeing more open conversations about how people are feeling, the challenges they are facing and the kinds of resources they are using to manage such concerns. Public perceptions of mental illness are softening and conversations about the issue are becoming more frequent, open and inclusive, particularly among younger people.
COVID-19 has also made it impossible to ignore racial disparities in how people of colour experience mental health concerns and in their ability to make use of services. The crisis has shown clearly that in western societies, people of colour have less access and are less likely to seek medical and psychological care. As a society, we must re-examine how care options are structured in order to promote inclusive and equal access for all communities. Not only do we generally need more therapists and mental health-care providers, but we also need more professionals from diverse backgrounds who can better empathize with and support people with similar experiences.
We all have a role to play in facilitating this change in our health-care system. As president of a major university focused on psychology, behavioural health sciences and nursing, I am relentlessly focused on recruiting and graduating students that reflect the varied identities of their communities, thereby creating a pipeline of diverse professionals who can fundamentally improve health and well-being for generations to come.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also dramatically accelerated the growth of teletherapy options, helping to expand access to services. With impressive speed, our entire industry moved from in-person to online care in early 2020. This immediate pressure test pushed incremental innovation in virtual therapy to the brink: we saw successful interactions between patients and providers, increased quality of available platforms and services, and increased investment in new technologies. While many are returning to in-person interactions and care options, telehealth will continue to be an important medium for expanding access to new groups of people seeking help.
Finally, as we continue to emerge from the worst of the pandemic and return to work, we are seeing a significant shift in how conversations about mental health are integrated into our workplace culture. The COVID-19 crisis compelled many employers to assume a more active role in promoting the mental health of their employees. Personally, I am energized when I consider the number of leaders I have spoken with who are interested in building expertise and capacity within their organizations to address employees’ mental health in the workplace. For example, many are investing in training to ensure that supervisors can recognize indicators of mental distress and how they can best support employees as they manage those issues in the work environment.
As we continue to navigate the ambiguities and impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, we must remain committed to raising awareness of mental health and pushing forward with innovations to address the issues we face as individuals and as members of a global society. We must continue to expand access to the critical services that can empower people to manage the current crisis and address whatever challenges come next. It is up to each one of us to keep the conversation and progress going.
1Ronald C Kessler and others, “Lifetime prevalence and age-of-onset distributions of DSM-IV disorders in the national comorbidity survey replication”, Archive of General Psychiatry, vol. 62, No. 6 (June 2005), p. 600.
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