“Good mental health is critical to the functioning of society at the best of times. It must be front and center of every country’s response to and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.”
United Nations Policy Brief, p. 2, May 2020
The implementation of physical distancing has been one major preventative measure to the spread of COVID-19. Unfortunately, an alarming side effect of this protocol has been a huge decline in mental wellness due to social and physical isolation.
Mental Health America states that nearly half of Americans say the pandemic is harming their mental health. Similarly, an issue brief from the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) in July 2020 shows that reports of mental health issues have grown from 32% in March to 53% in mid-July 2020.
The reasons for concern over these increases are numerous. Poor mental health can result in negative physical outcomes such as difficulty sleeping or eating, increase in substance abuse and worsening chronic conditions, even premature death in the most severe of cases. Emotional and mental issues such as anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation also lead to a poorer quality of life. All of these conditions may also increase individual health care costs and put a strain on overall treatment capacities.
The impact on older adults takes these issues to a whole new level due to their extreme vulnerability to COVID-19, their current average living situation (alone or restricted as part of a communal or care facility) and/or other health issues that are correlated with age. Citing the CDC, KFF indicates that significantly higher shares of people sheltering in place (47%) reported negative mental health effects resulting from worry or stress related to coronavirus than among those not sheltering in place (37%). Indeed, the share of older adults (65 and up) in the study report their negative mental health has increased since March.
While the World Health Organization (WHO) indicates that many countries are addressing mental health in their pandemic response plans, it is likely that they will be insufficient to fully meet the growing crisis. Additionally, plans may not direct enough resources toward older individuals nor happen soon enough. Mental Health America notes that many of the usual resources for older adults are temporarily suspended due to COVID-19.
With these challenges at hand, viable solutions should be deployed on a regional or local level as soon as possible. For older individuals, phone outreaches, telehealth, virtual peer support and online programs or support groups are options that have worked in communal living situations who are restricted from outside access. Barriers to effectiveness still exist, however, due to cost, unfamiliarity with advanced technology and/or cultural apprehension to embracing remote vs. in–person connection points.
While a viable COVID-19 vaccine is becoming closer every day, we cannot afford to wait to meet the alarming rise of mental health issues in our older community members. If we are to be a just and fair society, we must ensure that the health issues of all citizens are addressed and that we look beyond the physical to support the whole person in our quest for a holistic response to the negative effects of COVID-19.
You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.
C. S. Lewis