A post-pandemic crisis: The mental toll on America

Photo credits to PhRMA, The Catalyst.

 

This blog post was originally published on PhRMA’s The Catalyst and authored by Reza Moghadam, PharmD, MBA, senior director, Population Health & Remote Customer Engagement with Otsuka Pharmaceuticals on the impact of mental health during COVID-19. PhRMA and Otsuka Pharmaceuticals are partners of Meridian, we were recently joined by Mr. Kabir Nath of Otsuka for a Global Business Briefing with Ambassador Sugiyama of Japan. 

As we continue to wade through another month of societal paralysis due to the COVID-19 pandemic, our country is accelerating quickly toward another potentially more devastating issue that has been ready to boil over for some time: The post-pandemic mental health crisis.

We are already seeing news coverage nationwide highlighting the hardship associated with the emotional and physical strain people are feeling from near-constant fear, social isolation and psychological trauma resulting from this pandemic. Nowhere has the devastating impact on mental health been more apparent than for the health care workers who have been serving on the front-lines treating patients in this pandemic.

While more attention is being given to mental health than ever before, there are still exceptional challenges awaiting us at the end of the pandemic for which it will be critical to prepare. What can this crisis on the front-lines teach us as a broader, collective society? This is an opportunity for all of us – especially health care industry leaders — to pause, learn, and pivot into practices that provide sustainable support for building mental health resiliency.

Data have existed for some time to suggest that even under normal circumstances, emergency room physicians and health care providers face a high level of burnout. The COVID-19 crisis has only exacerbated these underlying issues for the majority of our front-line health care workers now serving in an emergency capacity. Add to this the very real anxiety over potentially contracting the virus, along with increased caregiving responsibilities as families and friends are kept away from the ill, and fragile mental threads begin to fray beyond what is typically seen as “classic” burnout.

We are witnessing firsthand the unprecedented toll that this is having on wellbeing, as an uptick in suicides in the New York health care system have unfortunately demonstrated. On a broader scale, a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll reports that nearly half of Americans report the coronavirus crisis is harming their mental health. The key question is how can we, in the pharmaceutical industry, help society prepare for, and provide support and resources that create a safety net to lessen the mental burdens in the event future pandemics occur.

Thus far, we are not moving fast enough. There has been an unequal focus on physical wellbeing as our health care workers endure longer hours, less sleep and de-prioritize their own self-care. When endured for short periods of time — as is typically the case for a normal ER setting — this is mostly manageable. However, for many of us there is no end in sight to how COVID-19 has upended our lives. This has thrown our front-line workers into unprecedented levels of prolonged crisis management. Early trends are showing the broader American workforce is experiencing a similar situation, as we have moved to an almost entirely virtual life.

We’ve picked up the reins to reorient our lives to this new normal, and our collective health and wellness has taken a backseat. Boundaries that barely existed between work and home life are now nonexistent. There is real risk that over time we will see increased levels of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and suicide as a result — similarly to what we’ve seen in the short term among health care workers. We must use the time now to shift from short-term coping mechanisms to long-term support; encouraging a sustained focus on physical and mental wellness, offering access to resources and enabling people to strengthen their mental resiliency.

In the near-term, we must ensure our basic mental health needs are being met. Recent funding measures included only small allocations for mental services, putting even more strain on an already underserved population. An immediate prioritization of awareness and access to behavioral health experts — via hotlines or telemedicine services — is needed. Over time, it will be critical for us to brace for the coming onslaught of mental health illnesses. Offering broader access to screenings and continued scaling of services offered via telemedicine, alongside federal and state financial support will be imperative to prepare us for what lies ahead. There may not be a return to “normal” life before COVID-19, but we must seize the opportunity to recognize this coming crisis so the most vulnerable among us may be offered a better version of mental health care than available today.