Saturday, November 27, 2021
Nov. 27, 2021

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In Our View: Pandemic exposes mental health system’s fragility

The Columbian

Eventually, we continue to hope, the COVID-19 pandemic will be reduced to a manageable level in the United States. Hospitals will not face the continuing prospect of being overrun by patients, infections will be relatively rare, and the coronavirus will not be a daily concern.

But even when the virus finally dissipates, it will leave behind a toll on this nation’s mental health. The pandemic has not only exacerbated the fragility of Americans’ peace of mind, it has exposed shortcomings in our mental health system.

That was brought to mind with a recent article from Columbian reporter Monika Spykerman under the headline “Critical care for critical workers in Clark County.” Focusing on the state of health care workers and the toll extracted by 20 months of constant stress, the article detailed an effort to help health care workers: Frontline to the Front of the Line.

As one local clinical social worker said: “Unless you have a friend or a family member working at a hospital or unless you’re a mental health worker yourself hearing these stories, you have no idea. It’s just horrible what is happening every day. It is an absolute war.”

Health care workers in need of help can visit to find a therapist with immediate openings.

Due to a constant stream of patients and a shortage of health care workers, those on the frontlines have been under extraordinary pressure since March 2020. In recent months, with a surge in the delta strain of the virus, that pressure has increased as many hospitals operated at near capacity.

At one point in September, The Columbian reports, the 32-room emergency department at Legacy Salmon Creek held 105 patients, and a refrigerated truck had been stationed on site because the morgue did not have room for all the bodies. A nurse manager said, “People don’t believe it.”

While that has led to overwhelming stress for many workers, they are simply a highly visible symptom of the nation’s mental disease. Work must begin now to strengthen a system that has been largely ignored for decades.

In a policy analysis this year from Rand Corporation, the authors note that: “In 2019, only 45 percent of people with a mental illness received any mental health treatment. This translates to unmet need for more than 30 million Americans.” And that was before the pandemic.

The study recommends various steps for improving access to care, but notes that “for change to occur, politicians, public administrators, advocates, and policy experts need to coalesce around a focused set of objectives.”

The objectives, in simplistic terms, must be to destigmatize mental health treatment, recognize when help is needed, and make care affordable and accessible. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention writes: “Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make healthy choices.”

Those abilities have been tested throughout the pandemic, and that test will have long-term effects. The lack of normalcy for school-age children over the past 20 months, for example, will have a lifetime impact.

The mental health of medical workers is a casualty of the pandemic, but it is just one example of the nation’s badly frayed nerves. With the impact of the pandemic likely to last for decades, the United States must bolster its system of mental health care.