Mental Health Awareness Month
Mental Health Awareness Month in the Time of COVID
The “Awareness” in “Mental Health Awareness Month” has special meaning this year. We should be aware of the mental health toll that the COVID pandemic has had. We should consider how we are addressing it as individuals, communities, and a society. As the COVID prognosis has significantly improved for the U.S., we should also be aware of how much our awareness of mental health issues has permanently changed.
It is indisputable that many people have experienced emotional distress and some have been newly diagnosed with mental health conditions as COVID damaged our physical, financial, and social well-being. It has been an extensively and widely covered news item, and there have been many studies on it. I have tremendous empathy for those who have been impacted and may live with longer term consequences to their mental health. Rightly, COVID has increased mental health awareness. But there are many questions about how much our longer term understanding and response to the mental health issues COVID highlighted will improve.
Situational or chronic mental illness?
A key factor in how much our approach to mental health improves is how temporary or long term COVID’s impact on mental health is. Are the newly diagnosed experiencing situational mental health conditions or will these conditions become chronic mental health conditions?
An increase in empathy?
How has increased mental health awareness impacted those already experiencing mental illness? Many claim that there has been an increase in empathy towards people living with mental illness. I think that’s reasonable. I also appreciate that increased mental health awareness creates more opportunity to improve society’s perceptions and treatment of people living with mental illness. That is the power of shared experience. For example, I have strong empathy for those experiencing mental health issues for the first time or more intensely. Hopefully, as life normalizes post-COVID mental health conditions will also improve, and the effects will largely prove temporary. But those of us with chronic mental illness will still live with the long term challenges.
So I hope that we do not diminish the experience of people who continue to live with chronic mental illness. This includes those who already had a condition and people who experience longer term mental health impacts from COVID. It helps that more people better understand from experience some of the conditions people with chronic mental illness may have, such as loneliness and isolation. However, people should not try to equate what is hopefully a short term mental health experience with chronic mental illness. That minimizes our pain and suffering often over long periods and the incredible challenges we face to reach recovery. This minimization can actually reduce empathy for members of our community.
What happens when we return to “normal”?
I certainly hope that people experiencing mental health conditions as a result of COVID easily recover once we return to a semblance of normalcy. Studies of the 9/11 terrorist attack offer a useful precedent. After the attacks, the mental health predictions were dire. Yet, during the 6 months after 9/11, 65% of New Yorkers showed resilience. Most people who experience a traumatic event do not develop mental illness. COVID is different from other traumatic events given its wide ranging impacts, numbers affected and duration. But history suggests that the longer term mental health consequences may not be too different from other traumatic events.
Will people who get over the emotional distress and mental health condition related to the pandemic say to us, “I got over my mental health condition, why can’t you?” or “Why don’t you try [this or that]?” Will they question our efforts or our desire to get well? Will increased focus on reform of the healthcare system likewise fade? Again, empathy for those with longer term mental health issues could actually decline as people with temporary experiences equate them with long term mental health experiences.
News reporting on us?
Everywhere you look there is news coverage on mental health — some superficial and others meaningful, some raising awareness, others offering solutions. The coverage focuses on depression and anxiety, which is extremely important. Increased awareness of these issues creates a tremendous opportunity to address these chronic society-wide ills. We must also recognize that there are many more conditions.
While much needed, I also find the coverage is at times discouraging and even stigmatizing. We have heard a lot about mental health crisis response during COVID, and I hope the changes people are calling for will happen. It also saddens me that when we talk about the 1 in 4 people with severe mental illness killed in police encounters there is typically a rush to characterize them as first and foremost a person with mental illness — not someone’s child, sibling, or parent, a contributing member of society. We need to recognize these people for more than their condition to have real empathy and improve crisis response.
Resources for us?
Did resources for our community increase during COVID? During COVID we saw resources for our chronic mental illness community diverted to COVID. Psych ward beds were converted to COVID units. Community behavioral health care organizations were forced to cut back. These groups serve some of the most needy with mental illness, including the BIPOC community which has been disproportionately impacted by COVID.
Studies also show that schizophrenia was second only to age as the greatest risk factor for COVID death, but I heard no mainstream reports of more resources being devoted to this community. People with chronic mental illness also experienced a deterioration in their conditions due to COVID. We rarely heard about how those already suffering from chronic mental illness were particularly hard hit by the pandemic. COVID is absolutely life threatening, but so are suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, and inability to access care. Where do these people go? We need our resources. We already do not have enough. We are in no position to lose even more. And will these resources return to us after the COVID crisis has subsided?
Can we advocate for ourselves?
We must. We must advocate for the return of resources to our community that were redirected during COVID and for even more services. Our advocacy may be more effective, sadly, if we frame these needs as needs of the mainstream — a “let’s be prepared” approach. Government agencies don’t give our community nearly enough resources, and our evidence-based programs are always underfunded.
But mainstream mental health initiatives, such as programs to address stress, could be prioritized as a longer term response to COVID. This would ultimately help address chronic mental health issues as well. In fact, short term mental health experiences may develop into chronic mental health conditions. Research has shown the clear connection between severe stress levels and major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. Another major mainstream issue, unemployment, is also a key source of stress for those living with mental illness and a potential trigger for mental health crises. We must make sure that we get our fair share of additional funding now flowing into mental health due to COVID. COVID has rightly accentuated the need for significant additional mental health-related funding and resources, and these needs do not end with COVID.
I remain guardedly optimistic. I hope empathy will remain and grow. I hope mental health awareness for our mental illness community increases. I hope our community will receive more resources. I hope mental health crisis response will greatly improve. I hope people will see the positive life-saving impacts that real meaningful change and investment, social action, and political will can have on our community. I have to believe that COVID has raised awareness of these possibilities.
A bright ray of hope that came during COVID for me was the implementation of the new 988 number. I really hope that 988 is the start of a wave of positive response to how we understand, prevent, treat, and manage mental illness. It is just one example of the possibilities for meaningful change in our community.
- Katherine Ponte
A Smile for a Good Cause
We’re raising money for our Psych Ward Greeting Cards Program. This high quality t-shirt, reasonably priced at only $25, is sure to bring a stress-relieving smile to many. $10 of every sale will be donated to the program.
Psychiatric patients at 3 leading hospitals will not be forgotten, especially on holidays, the most difficult time in the psych ward for many. This Easter / Passover we delivered 350 greeting cards with heartfelt messages and 700 Easter eggs stuffed with Hershey kisses. We were extremely fortunate to have received many card donations from our own ForLikeMinds community and the Silver Center at Fountain House. Our contributions shared not only holiday greetings, but also empathy, support, and hope from peers.
Our program was also thrilled to partner with Patrick Hruby who created just for us beautiful and creative coloring cards, which we share with patients. You can download them for free on our website.
My Message to Patients
Every card donated includes a recovery message by me. I shared a longer version of that message with the NAMI blog.
A Heartfelt Letter from a Young Patient
And finally, I love to receive feedback that warms my heart. This did it for me. A young patient speaks about how stigma made her feel like Scar of the Lion King, but our message of hope made her realize that she’s Simba. This is the impact of our program.
Join the conversation on our community of over 20,000 to share and inspire hope, to support each other through our struggles, and to celebrate our victories.
Shared Decision-making Study — We received over 2,300 survey responses. Thank you everybody!! The results are now being analyzed. The research process is extensive and a bit long, but I will be sure to keep you posted on its progress.
Peer Support Study — We’re also working on a Peer Support Study. Please consider taking our survey. Your voice matters! Peer support works! Thank you so much in advance!
BipolarThriving’s mission is to help families reach recovery from bipolar together. Over the past several months, I’ve worked with dozens of families dealing with the challenges of mental illness. I most frequently help with refusal by loved ones to accept treatment, medication adherence, communication issues, and self-care. It’s challenging work, but it brings me great satisfaction. I am pleased that I am able to use my lived experiences and lessons learned to coach families through similar mental health challenges.
Five on Friday by Professor Kathy Pike
I really love Columbia University’s Professor Pike’s Five on Friday, her widely popular weekly newsletter. Professor Pike is a highly dedicated mental health advocate. Her weekly posts are excellent, always insightful, informative, and witty. I highly recommend that you subscribe to it. We were thrilled that she recently featured us.
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