COVID-19 has serious impact on people with mental illness

Over the last several months there has been growing awareness of the damage done by the COVID-19 pandemic to not just our physical health, but also our mental health. Ten months of staying at home, wearing masks, working and going to school remotely, and being separated from family and friends, has been unexpectedly challenging and anxiety-producing.

Because of the economic impact of COVID-19, many of our families, friends and neighbors have had markedly worse experiences than others, losing jobs and homes, and they are suffering from even more mental stress than the rest of us. Our hearts go out to them and we need to offer a helping hand wherever and whenever we can.

And all this does not even address the threat of contracting COVID-19 itself. A recent study published in the Lancet Psychiatric Journal concluded that 1 out of every 5 persons infected with coronavirus will experience and be diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder within 90 days. This is just another terrible side effect of this global health catastrophe, and one which those who recover from the disease – “long-haulers” – will have to deal with in the long term as well as now.

But there is also a subgroup of people who are not highlighted as being at risk for contracting COVID-19 but who are experiencing psychiatric issues because of disruption in the mental health services they need and have relied on for many years. These are people who are and have been in recovery from serious mental illness and/or have a developmental disability prior to COVID-19. In some cases, they may not even be aware of the common symptoms of the coronavirus, perhaps because it resembles symptoms of other co-morbid heart and respiratory conditions.

It should be noted that many of these individuals are served by the State’s ten community mental health centers, as well as by the area agencies serving the developmentally disabled, throughout New Hampshire. The risks and challenges they have faced over the last ten months deserve the attention and awareness of all of us, not just the professional community. And while it is a fact that vaccines are indeed a major scientific breakthrough that give us great promise for the near and far future, the risks posed to this subgroup and the impact of Covid-19 on their lives do not go away overnight.

While the community mental health centers have stayed open ever since the pandemic hit and have expanded the provision of services via telehealth, there are some individuals who still need face to face services. These could include those who are experiencing a psychiatric crisis, or those in need of hands-on help with housing assistance, especially the homeless. There are also people living in rural areas of the state where broadband access is not adequate to support telehealth visits. Until we fix these gaps in the service network, we cannot appropriately provide care to all when they need it and without interruption.

Delays in care and interruptions in care for those with a serious mental illness can be life-threatening. Much more serious and problematic conditions can develop, and there can be the risk of increased mortality. At the very least, the progress from treatment that has been made to date to help these individuals through their illness can be lost. Sadly, we see this most graphically in the area of substance use disorders. The CDC reported this month, “While overdose deaths were already increasing in the months preceding the 2019 novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, the latest numbers suggest an acceleration of overdose deaths during the pandemic.”

Where we don’t always see this as clearly, or as immediately, is with those who are suffering from a serious mental illness. Stigma has kept many from seeking treatment to begin with, and the isolation and social distancing imposed by COVID-19 has added just another layer of difficulty to their access to care.

This is why the whole community – families, friends, neighbors, teachers, employers, co-workers and others – should pay special attention to those with a mental health problem during this difficult time and help direct them to services and supports.

There are resources available for those in a mental health crisis, and we as providers will find a way to get timely and appropriate care to all who need it, both now and after COVID-19. You can find the contact information for your local community mental health center at https://nhcbha.org/.

Vic Topo is president and CEO of the Center for Life Management in Derry.