Over the last month, I’ve heard more than once that the COVID-19 pandemic, as difficult as it is, will be followed by a second pandemic of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress, born of unprecedented economic dislocation and isolation. We are already seeing it.
Calls to suicide hotlines in the US and elsewhere have exploded. In Southern California, for instance, COVID-19-related calls went from a total of 21 in February to more than 1,800 in March.
The Mental Health Association of San Francisco is logging as many as 274 calls a day, a 96% increase over its historic average and far exceeding its 160-call-a-day capacity.
We can all reach out to friends, neighbours and family who live alone or might be feeling lonely or vulnerable. But we also need a more organised response, one that involves training and deploying people, both volunteers and professionals, to reach out more broadly to those in need
And at a time when all of us desperately need our mental health professionals, surveys show that many of them face losing their jobs as clinics and practices are forced to close.
A broken system
The mental health system -- even in an advanced economy like US -- has been broken for decades. Today, we can’t answer the most basic question asked by people in pain: “Where do I turn to get help for myself or my child, for my parent or partner?”
We desperately need to fix the fragmented system and ensure that support and care are there for those who need it. But I am reminded of something that might help fill some gaps until then: mobilising tens of thousands of people who want to help. Right now, in this time of need.
Some things are simple. We can all reach out to friends, neighbours and family who live alone or might be feeling lonely or vulnerable. But we also need a more organised response, one that involves training and deploying people, both volunteers and professionals, to reach out more broadly to those in need.
To get on track economically, we will need programs to help people who lost jobs during the crisis get back to work. Why not both train laypeople and enlist sidelined professionals to work supporting those in need? This kind of strategy helped us emerge from the Great Depression. We’ll need something similar today.
Addressing health care needs
An example: In California, US, Gov. Gavin Newsom wisely created a California Health Corps to enable retired medical professionals to help address the physical health care needs of those hit by COVID-19. Why not the same for mental health?
We can deploy mental health professionals working as volunteers to support those struggling with isolation and anxiety. Offer training to existing members in a simple strategy to help them provide a full range of support and identify those in need of deeper assistance.
Second, (and this is US centric) we can increase state support for suicide, crisis and warm lines. For about $7 million, these services — currently swamped by a tsunami of need — could double their capacity to help people in crisis.
We may also train laypeople in the community in techniques for coping with stress and trauma. There can be evidence-based methods, used across the US and around the world to help people recover from disasters and traumatic experiences, help people cultivate their own resources and natural resiliency.
Lets also highlight and promote the work of volunteer, mutual aid efforts that facilitate people to help others in their community who need extra support to survive the crisis.
The he investments I’m suggesting here are small and essential — and there are funding sources that could be tapped. The Mental Health Services Act in the US state of California, for instance, fund has more than $700 million in reserve for a rainy day.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has been generous in reimbursing needed investments directly related to COVID-19. Let’s put some of this money to use. (Others can have their own systems)
The existing mental health system and its professional workforce cannot possibly meet the increased demand brought on by COVID-19. It is time to democratise the mental health provider movement. We need people to reach out to all who are suffering. Those on both ends of the encounter will find it healing.
Darrell Steinberg is mayor of Sacramento, Calif., and founder of the Steinberg Institute, an advocacy institute for mental health policy