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Why We're Facing A Coronavirus 'Mental Health Pandemic'

(Photo: Ben White on Unsplash)
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In our COVID-19 world, countless people are grieving after losing a loved one to the virus. Millions are grappling with the loss of their job and the loneliness of physical isolation, not to mention the myriad other disruptions caused by the pandemic.

Mental health experts say we're experiencing a collective trauma, and they're starting to sound the alarm about a far-reaching psychological crisis.

"Our pandemic -- the mental health pandemic -- is mounting," said Dr. Jonathan Sherin, director of the L.A. County Department of Mental Health. "It will grow and it will fester and will far outlast the public health pandemic."

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Calls for information and referrals to the Department of Mental Health were up more than 20% in March and April compared with the same months last year. Call volume was already up year-over-year for January and February, but the increase has become more marked since the coronavirus took hold in California and stay-at-home orders were enacted.

"That should be 200%," Sherin said. "There's a lot of people with a lot of needs and we expect that number to grow significantly."


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A USC tracking survey of more than 1,000 people in L.A. County found nearly half are dealing with symptoms of anxiety or depression. That's up from 36% in March.

"What we're experiencing right now is a persistent, chronic, ubiquitous threat that doesn't really have an off switch," said Professor Steven Siegel, chair of USC's Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. "That's not a system that we are well evolved for, to live under."

At the same time the virus is causing some people to seek psychiatric help for the first time, the state's prisons and jails are releasing thousands of inmates, many of whom have existing serious mental illness.

Michelle Cabrera, executive director of the County Behavioral Health Directors Association of California, estimates one-third of people being released from jails qualify for treatment for a serious mental illness or substance abuse disorder.

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"We are really concerned that in parallel with the public health emergency we have an emerging and significantly larger behavioral health crisis brewing across the state," Cabrera said.


At the same time experts, advocates and officials are expecting a surge in need for services, an already under-funded mental health system is bracing for funding cuts.

Because the state's mental health safety net is supported in part by taxes -- sales taxes, vehicle license taxes and the millionaires tax -- it's expected to take a big funding hit because of the reeling economy.

Sherin sees a potential loss of hundreds of millions of dollars, just a few months after a strong economy was fueling more investment in mental health.

"It's very tough to have made so much progress and then to basically get hit by a mack truck," he said.

State Sen. Jim Beall (D-San Jose), chairman of the Select Committee on Mental Health, worries the state won't have the money to deal with the mental health costs arising from the pandemic.

There hasn't been a coordinated response yet to this challenge, he said. "We have no plan."

Beall believes the failure to deal with the mental health challenge will lead to a spike in homelessness and emergency room visits.

"We should look at it as a public health crisis within a crisis," he said.


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