Mental Health Experts Say COVID-19 Is Creating Casualties of Depression
WASHINGTON — Mental health experts are warning that although the COVID-19 pandemic might be subsiding in the United States, it is leaving a legacy of depression and addiction that will linger long after the virus.
Now lawmakers are grappling for ways to confront what they describe as a mental health crisis.
Suicides are up 30 percent and drug overdose deaths rose 38 percent in the past year in Washington, the home state of Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash.,, she said during a hearing Wednesday.
A Centers for Disease Control survey in December found that 42 percent of respondents reported anxiety or depression, up more than 200 percent from the average in 2019.
“Healing those scars will not be quick or easy,” Murray said.
The Biden administration proposes integrating mental health treatment into primary care medical treatment, such as through Medicare and Medicaid.
The proposals could be adapted into the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that President Joe Biden signed into law last month. The stimulus plan is intended to help the nation recover from the economic and health impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a separate move, a group of lawmakers on Wednesday introduced a bill to help schools and communities flag persons who need mental health support.
The bill would direct various federal agencies to create best practices for behavioral intervention programs to help communities identify persons at risk of violence to themselves or others.
“This pandemic is a painful reminder that our work is far from finished,” Murray said.
As the pandemic forced more people to stay home, some medical and mental health treatment was switched to tele-medecine, which normally means video streamed over the Internet or telephone calls.
Mental health experts who testified before the Senate subcommittee said expanding tele-medecine could be a practical way to address widespread emotional problems caused by the pandemic.
“The phone is a great way to do that,” said Andy Keller, president of the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute in Dallas.
In much the same way the pandemic’s emergency compelled a record pace for an effective new vaccine, “We can do that same thing with mental health and addiction,” Keller said.
However, it would require more government assistance, he said.
The alternative could be mentally distressed people behaving irrationally, perhaps ending up in jail, he said.
“These effects will not end as the pandemic recedes,” Keller said.
Sara Goldsby, director of the South Carolina Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services, said she has seen an upswing in opioid addiction as some persons affected by the pandemic try to escape depression through the painkillers.
“We knew that isolation was going to drive addiction,” she said.
She mentioned the addictions as an example of a problem that will remain even if the virus is brought under control.
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., said he was concerned that “vaccine hesitancy” would slow the U.S. recovery from the pandemic.
“We’re seeing the demand slow,” he said.
Vaccine hesitancy refers to a reluctance or refusal to be vaccinated or to have children vaccinated, usually out of medical, ethical or legal concern. People who refuse vaccines are commonly known as “anti-vaxxers.”
Burr described vaccinations as a “key metric” for the nation’s economy and Americans’ personal finances.
“It also means more jobs and more opportunities to restore their livelihoods,” he said.
The death toll in the United States from COVID-19 topped 573,000 so far this week.
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