Americans are, rightly so, becoming well versed in the use of phrases such as social distancing, personal protective equipment, self-isolation, herd immunity, and flattening the curve. For most of us, the need to adopt strict infection control measures has become a fact of daily life.
While I'm confident we will prevail in our battle with COVID-19, I'm increasingly concerned about both the short- and long-term impact this pandemic will have on people with existing or latent mental health and substance use issues. That's because these are potentially terminal illnesses, too.
We know the coronavirus is on track to inflict mild to severe--and sometimes fatal--illness among countless thousands. But a widespread mental illness and addiction crisis is sure to accompany this pandemic. We need to take action now.
Millions of Americans are already experiencing significant financial struggles due to COVID-19. And the economic fallout from this pandemic is sure to be with us long after the virus has been put in check. As our economy grinds to a standstill, hundreds of thousands of Americans will be face-to-face with one of the most significant risk factors for suicide: unemployment.
Another key risk factor for suicide is isolation, which in the form of social distancing also happens to be one of the primary prescriptions for defeating COVID-19. For many people, the price of the desired result--avoiding infection--will come at a cost of increased anxiety, fear, substance abuse, loss of familiar routines, and feelings of loneliness and disconnection from family, work, and community and religious gatherings.
At the same time, a concurrent surge in the sale of firearms should give us all concern. Research clearly demonstrates that guns are the most common method of suicide in the U.S.
Mental health and addiction treatment providers have been working hard to adapt their service delivery models to accommodate infection control guidelines while continuing to serve clients through limited face-to-face sessions, and telephone and video conferencing technology. These efforts are to be commended and perhaps continued beyond the pandemic as ways to reduce barriers to mental health and addiction care.
At the same time, many people who live in rural areas are simply unable to take advantage of these options. That, and the fact that many providers have temporarily instituted screening questions at admissions points, can significantly hinder access to services based on an incorrect perception that mental health resources are not available. Right when they are needed most.
COVID-19 is going to claim lives...but this pandemic will certainly end at some point. The accompanying wave of mental health and substance abuse crises has the potential to go on much longer and become just as deadly, especially if we fail to acknowledge the threat and address it with equal levels of expertise, funding, and concern we have for people directly impacted by the coronavirus.
Ten years ago the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced a goal of reducing the country’s suicide rate from 12.1 to 10.2 per 100,000 population by 2020. Sadly, the rate has risen to 14.2 deaths per 100,000 population. In 2018 that translated into more than 48,000 Americans taking their own lives.
This makes suicide among the top ten causes of death in our nation, with a disproportionate impact on people in rural areas like ours. Today we are witnessing how proactive healthcare measures can save lives. The time is now to apply these lessons to mental illness and substance abuse. Otherwise, rates of death by suicide will no doubt become even higher.
Louis Josephson, PhD. is the President and CEO of the Brattleboro Retreat