The world we currently live in has become a very strange, unsettling place. Social distancing, home isolation, job loss and insecurity, and the cancellation of sports and other large gatherings has completely changed the way we live our lives. It’s impacting even the most optimistic among us as we try to stay positive and remain hopeful that we will soon be able to come together again.
Now, imagine how living with this unsettling situation feels for the over 46 million Americans with mental health challenges. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and mental health has never been more important than it is right now. To some extent, we are all experiencing what life is like for someone struggling with anxiety as we push ourselves to keep going regardless of the disruption we’ve experienced tied to new working environments and added pressures at home. In addition to dealing with uncertainty, many of us are also grieving the loss of a loved one, a job, or the normal routine of life as we knew it.
There many insights to be gained from this challenging time. First, the community has come together without regard to the demographics which often separate us. Secondly, the true heroes among us are those who willingly sacrifice for the benefit and care of others. It is their ability to face the unimaginable that gives us hope for the recovery of loved ones and the future of our professions.
It was recently observed that, during this pandemic, professionals working in the field of behavioral health are dealing with two pandemics at the same time – COVID-19 and mental health. While different, each crisis cruelly attacked the most vulnerable among us and offered difficult lessons.
We are also reminded that we cannot take for granted the need for preparedness or politicize the payment of its costs. Early in my career, the majority of health services were paid for by employers and government without any significant understanding by consumers of the true costs associated with quality of care. While that has now changed, we cannot allow this shift to arbitrarily limit care to anyone or advance disparities in the availability of treatment.
But, despite the darkness we’ve experienced during this pandemic, I do believe a light has been cast that will begin to change perceptions of mental illness. Over the last 10 weeks, mental health has become a more open topic of conversation in the workplace as employers try to manage their employees’ fears and anxieties as well as their own. Additionally, COVID-19 has shown us how closely mental health is tied to physical health. As Dr. Jessica Gold, assistant professor of psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis, wrote in a piece for Time magazine on May 13, 2020, “You cannot talk about a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) without talking about the mental health repercussions, and you cannot talk about patients who are dying of COVID-19 without talking about grief. You also cannot talk about unemployment or social isolation without talking about anxiety and depression.”
Making a cultural shift in the way we view and interact with people living with mental illness is not easy, but it is time for mental health to stop being stigmatized and start being valued. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted just how important mental health services are and how much they are needed. Now is the time to:
- Embrace this moment and use it to spur the changes that are long overdue in mental health.
- Make mental health care affordable and accessible, especially as the demand for these services continues to rise.
- Enforce parity and ensure that reimbursement for mental health care equals that of physical health care.
- Understand that mental illness is a disease, just like any other illness, and it is not a weakness or anyone’s fault.
- Realize that no one deserves to be treated differently because of their mental illness.
While our healthcare system remains imperfect, it remains among the best in the world. Most of that success has been due to the local nature of care and the partnership between government and the business community. Now is the time to take the necessary steps to support fully-integrated general medicine and behavioral health supported by adequate reimbursement. While it will not be easy or inexpensive, two simultaneous pandemics should serve to remind us of the real cost of doing anything less. Only by thinking holistically and planning proactively can we prepare for whatever lies ahead with the confidence that we will be able to offer our community the care they need and deserve.
Wayne A. Mugrauer, President and CEO