Nationwide, some 45 million have gotten sick with COVID-19 to date, and countless Americans have lost loved ones to the virus. It’s safe to say that all of us been victimized in one way of another.
The mental health impact is especially troubling.
Months of psychological distress have morphed into “a doubling” of anxiety and depression disorders – much of that in individuals with no previous history of mental health issues – according to Dr. Patrick Runnels, vice chair of psychiatry and chief medical officer of population/behavioral health at University Hospitals.
Substance abuse also has risen sharply, he said, as have emergency room visits and in-patient admissions among people afflicted with severe mental health conditions, such as schizophrenia, major depression, PTSD and bipolar disorder.
“A lot of the safety-net type services weren’t there to manage folks with the most severe illnesses,” Runnels said. “Residential services might have been curtailed due to decrease in staffing, for example, and supply chain issues have made just getting people the medications they need harder. You also had people with mental illness in more contained environments that were potentially more stressful for them.”
These patients are also coming into health care settings at more advanced disease stages, Runnels added.
“We have seen a marked increase in the acuity and severity of folks that are coming to our ERs, especially over the last six months or so, such that the overall severity of inpatient units is now also quite a bit higher,” he said.
Dr. Carla M. Harwell, medical director at the University Hospitals Otis Moss Jr. Health Center, said communities of color have been among the most susceptible to the pandemic’s mental health sting. Disproportionate rates of COVID-19 among black Americans have spread anxiety of falling ill and dying, as well as anguish over the illness and loss of loved ones.
“You could probably walk up to almost any person of color, and they’ve been impacted with not just knowing someone who had COVID but who died from it,” said Harwell.
She added that stressors like finding care for children out of school, economic hardship, difficulty accessing health care services and general racial injustice have exacerbated the pandemic’s emotional toll on black individuals, who already suffer from higher rates of psychological distress than white people.
“Getting people to admit they need help is another challenge,” Harwell said. “There’s always been a stigma around seeking mental health services in the black community.”
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