Great Depression: Mental health is crucial to COVID-19 recovery

A portrait of a man alone and in distress. (Image icsnaps, via Shutterstock)

The economic and health-related impacts of COVID-19 have perpetuated feelings of uncertainty, anxiousness and loneliness across a broad swath of California’s population.

A third of Americans are experiencing these emotions, according to a recent Census Bureau survey, and that’s concerning because stressors can trigger or re-ignite more severe mental health issues.

Much of the COVID-19 response has necessarily been on managing the pandemic and mitigating the impacts of a recession. As we look to recovery, we must make mental health care a part of the solution: through targeted funding, more integrated behavioral health resources, and policies at the regional and state level that support our most vulnerable populations. Doing so is critical to our long-term economic, and personal, recovery.

The recent Census Bureau survey indicated that nearly 70 percent who make less than $25,000 a year are reporting depression and hopelessness.

Even before COVID-19 emerged, the U.S. experienced its highest suicide rate since World War II, and drug overdoses claimed about 70,000 lives, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

In California, nearly 1 in 6 adults experience a mental illness of some kind, and 1 in 24 have a serious mental illness, yet numerous studies indicate a severe shortage of mental health services. That needs to change – particularly with so many lives at stake today.

Of particular concern is how the pandemic has the potential to create even greater divisions in mental health impacts. The recent Census Bureau survey indicated that nearly 70 percent who make less than $25,000 a year are reporting depression and hopelessness.

COVID-19 is straining our mental health system supports, from those who struggle with homelessness and drug abuse to those who are sheltering at home. Our mental state is affected by reduced human contact and health concerns. It is creating trauma among medical personnel working in the emergency rooms as well as families unable to say their final goodbyes to those who are dying. It has also, at least temporarily, created financial stresses for others as a result of job loss and job insecurity.

It may be too soon to register the impacts of COVID-19, however no full recovery can take place without addressing our mental health. Depression and anxiety alone have an estimated cost to the global economy of $1 trillion per year in lost productivity, according to the World Health Organization. With recovery in mind, we must build on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s calls just last year to transform and launch California toward a new era of mental health service delivery.

We can do that by strengthening partnerships with community agencies, expanding housing treatment supports, and offering expanded community-based treatment services. Areas of focus include creating targeted services for the homeless and identifying and treating children with complex medical conditions, as well as for the state’s growing aging populations.

How we emerge from the current situation, with a better understanding of mental health needs and empathy towards others, could define how we talk about mental health for years to come.

Now is the time to extend our hands to help those who need this help the most, and to come to collective consensus about strengthening state policies and support systems on behalf of any and all who struggle with mental health illnesses.

Editor’s Note: Dr. Laura V Otis-Miles, Ph.D., is senior vice president of Mental Health Systems, Inc. a statewide nonprofit agency that since 1978 has delivered mental health, substance abuse, housing, veteran and recovery services across eight California counties.

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