Will COVID-19 Be The Thing That Finally Helps De-Stigmatize Mental Health Issues?

by Karen Johnson
Originally Published: 
Will COVID-19 Be The Thing That Finally Helps De-Stigmatize Mental Health Issues?

When it comes to mental health, we’ve come a long way. Our grandparents’ generation was unlikely to seek help. Our parents’ generation did, but they were hush-hush about it. Thankfully, in 2020, many of us are willing to admit when we’re struggling–we see therapists, take medication, and do whatever we need to take care of ourselves, without embarrassment or shame.

Many, but not all.

Unfortunately, we aren’t completely there yet, and there remains a stigma around mental health struggles. Yes, more people are willing to seek help than ever before, but they’re still waiting, often for years, to do so. Astonishingly, the average amount of time between identifying mental illness and seeking professional help, according to Harvard Medical School, is 10 years.

A decade of lost time. A decade of suffering that could, according to Varun Choudhary, MD, DFAPA, lead to other illnesses and premature death.

Dr. Choudhary is also the National Behavioral Health Chief Medical Officer of Magellan Health and a Board-Certified Forensic Psychiatrist. He told Scary Mommy, “People with depression have a higher risk of heart disease and cancer. Studies also show that people with severe mental illness have a higher incidence of chronic diseases and tend to die 10-25 years earlier than the general population.”

The stigma makes us wait too long to seek help and can do irreparable damage to our minds and bodies.

It shows in the ways we talk about mental illness too. When depression takes someone’s life, we still hear comments about how “selfish” suicide is and wonder “why didn’t they get help?” as if we have any idea what the deceased did to try to save their own life and fight the disease. And we assume they even had a choice.

Also, as a society, we still don’t categorize mental health illnesses the same way we categorize cancer or diabetes or MS.

Those with mental illness have to endure ignorant comments that someone sick with cancer would never hear. Things like “happiness is a choice!” and “Just get outside and soak in some vitamin D!” Or we suggest retail therapy or getting coffee with a friend, as if a new purse or mocha latte is adequate medicine for a disease that plagues every aspect of a person’s life. When someone is undergoing chemo, we sit with them and hold their hand far more often than we do when someone is in treatment for their mental illness.

So, yeah, we may have come a long way, but we’re far from where we need to be.

But a few months ago, the coronavirus hit and locked us indoors for months, in isolation. Extroverts were abruptly ripped from the social interactions they thrive on, and introverts were boxed in with their family members 24 hours a day with no quiet or personal space.

Therapy sessions were missed.

Adjustments to work-from-home life and homeschooling had to be made.

Anxiety soared as we all feared contracting this vicious illness that has now taken over 100,000 American lives.

And front-line medical workers have watched thousands upon thousands die.

There may be an odd silver lining to come out of this pandemic nightmare—a nightmare of epic proportions for those already struggling with mental illness. Maybe COVID-19 will end up making the world see how vital mental health is. Now that more people than ever are facing struggles they’ve never had to before and are truly seeing, first-hand, what isolation, anxiety, and trauma can do to a person, maybe finally society can wash away the stigma surrounding mental health.

“COVID-19 is impacting people’s mental health in a number of different ways. People who have been quarantined have reported or shown a high prevalence of psychological distress while first responders and health care workers are experiencing a heightened level of strain and fear at work. The mental toll COVID-19 has taken on individuals has become more difficult than any could have imagined,” explains Dr. Choudhary.

The World Health Organization echoes this sentiment, highlighting the various groups that have been greatly impacted by COVID-19, particularly front-line health care workers, children and adolescents, women who’ve largely taken on the burden of working from home and home-schooling, and older persons and people with pre-existing mental health conditions.

Also, alcohol consumption is another area of concern for mental health experts. “Statistics from Canada report that 20% of 15-49 year-olds have increased their alcohol consumption during the pandemic,” according to WHO.

So yeah, we’re all feeling it. So how again could this possibly be a good thing?

Because more people see it now. More people are aware that mental illness is a real, widespread issue that affects our entire society. More people now know that mental illnesses are real illnesses, just like cancer and diabetes and heart disease and ALS.

And more people see the need to invest in mental health as our world recovers from the worst global crisis it’s seen in the past hundred years.

“It is now crystal clear that mental health needs must be treated as a core element of our response to and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, as reported by WHO. “This is a collective responsibility of governments and civil society, with the support of the whole United Nations System. A failure to take people’s emotional well-being seriously will lead to long-term social and economic costs to society.”

One positive Dr. Choudhary has noticed through this extended quarantine is the willingness to utilize newer methods to foster doctor-patient contact, such as telehealth usage. “The current pandemic has amplified the fact that we have a significant mental health professional shortage in our system and has given telehealth the boost it needed to gain mainstream acceptance,” he explains.

Furthermore, this global crisis, Dr. Choudhary believes, will push more med students to enter the behavioral health field, an area that has historically had a shortage of doctors but will be an area of major demand in the immediate and long-term future.

In the meantime, as we wait out this seemingly never-ending bad dream, the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) encourages us to take care of ourselves as best we can, including how “news exposure” impacts our well-being. Beyond the standard “exercise, get fresh air, reach out to loved ones, meditate and practice mindfulness exercises, eat healthy, and take your meds” pieces of advice that can improve mental health, we should also monitor and adjust how we consume information. This can be done via the following methods:

  • Watching or listening to the same news constantly can increase stress. Reading can be an easier medium to control how much and what kind of information you’re absorbing.
  • Set limits on when and for how long you consume news and information, including through social media. It may help you to choose a couple of 15-minute blocks each day when you will check news/social media and limit your news consumption to that time.
  • False information spreads very easily on social media and can have serious consequences for individual and public health. Always verify sources and make sure they are reputable, especially before sharing anything.

Also, while it’s great and all that this contagious virus that’s ravaging our planet may actually have this one positive impact, we are also responsible for fighting the stigma attached to mental health issues on our own, in our homes, and as we parent our children. Dr. Choudhary says we can do that in the following ways:

  • Talk openly and honestly about your own experiences with mental illness and addiction.
  • Educate yourself and others about the facts of mental illness. Mental disorders are treatable just as physical diseases are, and people with mental illness are not to blame for their condition.
  • Recognize the signs of mental illness and seek professional help when needed.
  • Show empathy for those living with mental health and substance use disorders.
  • Be aware of your attitudes and language used to describe mental illness and people with mental illness. Jokes and name-calling are hurtful and perpetuate demeaning stereotypes.

“It is now understood by the general public that mental health is a vital part of overall wellness, and that there is no real separation between mind and body,” Dr. Choudhary says. “There is an unprecedented realization of the importance of our mental health industry, and policymakers have increased funding and removed barriers to access treatment.”

So I guess if you’re looking for something positive to come out of this giant horrific mess, this could be it.

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