The coronavirus pandemic has affected everyone.
Physically, the virus has touched hundreds of millions of lives as of May 31, there have been nearly a billion confirmed cases since the pandemic began in 2019, and nearly 7 million COVID-related deaths, according to the World Health Organization.
Yet the pandemic has also taken a toll on people’s mental health. Though less obvious, experts say it’s no less dangerous.
Recent data from the World Health Organization shows that there has been a 25% increase in the prevalence of anxiety and depression in the year since the start of the pandemic. This year, one in five children will experience a mental disorder, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While mental health is certainly not a new topic of discussion, it was against this backdrop that Lieutenant Governor Bethany Hall-Long convened Delaware’s inaugural Behavioral Health Summit on Monday.
Here are five takeaways from the summit and where Delaware is.
Delaware is in a much better place than it was eight years ago. But it has a long way to go.
Delaware has made huge strides in addressing mental and behavioral health since 2015, when the Delaware General Assembly established a task force on mental and behavioral health. The task force, now known as the Delaware Behavioral Health Consortium, is managed by the office of the lieutenant governor.
In the years since its inception, the state has had a particular focus on combating Delaware’s opioid epidemic, which inherently means addressing the mental health issues of those struggling with addiction.
Yet while there are far more addiction treatment centers in the First State than there were a decade ago, facilities like MeadowWood Behavioral Health Hospital and Rockford Center were the only places addicts could go to get help across the continuum of care. when it comes to mental health and substance abuse he’s still not where he should be.
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Dr. Sandra Gibney, a local doctor who has made it her mission to address the opioid problem in the state, said her hope is that health care professionals begin treating mental health “as we would if someone were having a stroke or a diabetic emergency or heart attack.”
“If you had a heart attack, I wouldn’t give you aspirin and I wouldn’t send you home from the emergency room,” Gibney said.
While most emergency room doctors who see people experiencing a mental health crisis don’t just hand them an antidepressant or antipsychotic and let them walk out the front door, establishing meaningful follow-up care for issues mental health is often more difficult than for a heart attack patient, for example.
In part, this is due to a shortage of mental health professionals and community-based programs, but the shortage is a result of poor funding and a lack of coordination and governance.
Veterans are often caught between a rock and a hard place
While there has been much attention in recent years to addressing the mental health of veterans who are more vulnerable to homelessness, suicide, physical and mental illness, and substance use disorder because of their service, their route to getting help is often more complicated.
Although the Department of Veterans Affairs offers mental health and substance abuse treatment, a 2019 study found that only 30 percent of VA health enrolled veterans receive their care from the department. And even those receiving assistance from the VA may have to overcome numerous hurdles before getting the level of treatment they need.
Former U.S. Representative Patrick Kennedy, D-RI, told Monday’s event that many of those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan were from the National Guard Reserve. While Reserve members typically qualify for some VA benefits, it is less healthy than those who are full-time enlisted.
Therefore, Kennedy said, unless members of the Reserve sustained a serious injury while on duty, in order to receive many mental health benefits, they had to “check a box when they left the Army, saying ‘They suffered from head trauma or post-traumatic stress?'”
The catch, the former rep said, was that if they checked yes, they’d have to stay another month for a hiring process.
“If you’ve been away from your family for nearly a year, how many of our returning soldiers want to spend another month at Fort Dix or somewhere else?” Kennedy said.
As a result, many have returned to their civilian jobs that don’t typically offer much mental health insurance coverage, and have suffered in silence.
“We must (must) fight to make sure that parity is enforced so that every one of those Guardsmen and Reservists and their families have protection for their ‘invisible wounds of war,'” Kennedy said.
Mental health treatment is not yet funded as are other disorders
In Delaware, as in most other states, mental health services are not adequately funded, nor is treatment treated in the same way as a disease such as cancer.
In large part, this has to do with the stigma surrounding mental health, much like the HIV/AIDS epidemic was seen in the 1980s and 1990s, Gibney said.
When that disease first emerged in the United States, Gibney said there were “very few providers” who were willing to treat patients because they “thought if they touched them they might get it” or that “there was something that was wrong with them that they got HIV in the first place.”
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However, over the decades, as scientists conducted more research on the disease and better treatments became available to not only cure HIV but also prevent it, the stigma “melted away,” Gibney said.
He said the medical community must treat mental illnesses just as they would physical ailments and spend more time and money on research.
“My wish would be that we[treat]mental health issues and behavioral health issues … as vigorously as we do diabetes or HIV or cancer,” Gibney said.
Schools must be part of the equation
Mental and behavioral health care must extend to the education system and to all who come into contact with students, agreed speakers at Monday’s summit.
Kennedy said teachers are perfectly poised to play a key role in helping determine children’s mental health outcomes, as they “are on the front lines of this children’s mental health crisis.”
However, in some places, educators don’t even have the proper tools to give children a comprehensive education. Without funds and training to help with student mental health, children will continue to suffer, Kennedy said.
Typically, she added, schools treat “problem” children through disciplinary action, when what they really need is adequate treatment for the traumas they experience at home or in their communities. This can include anything from food insecurity to homelessness to gun violence or addiction.
Instead of managing school disruption issues with discipline, Kennedy and others said, more resources need to be poured into schools to train teachers and add counselors.
He added that reaching children at a young age with appropriate services will ideally lead to better mental health outcomes as adults.
“We all need a better textbook,” he said.
Bus drivers can also play an important role, the panelists said. Yet it all comes back to funding and the recognition that mental health is just as much a health issue as a physical disorder.
Delaware is uniquely located given its size, and that’s a good thing
While Delaware is small, in the context of collaboration between state agencies and community partners, the state’s size is a good thing, the speakers said.
While smaller states typically bring in less money than other states with larger revenue streams, the state’s tiny square footage and the fact that everyone knows each other means those in the mental and behavioral health fields are uniquely positioned to work Together.
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Physically, people in these camps can get from one end of Delaware to the other in just over two hours (depending on traffic, of course). This is important because studies have shown that in-person collaboration allows people to communicate better and develop new solutions.
Delaware’s size also means there are fewer groups doing the work. While this can be a detriment, it can also be helpful in making tangible progress toward getting things done, as well as trying out various models like New Castle County’s Hope Center to see what works.
How to get help
To get help in Delaware, contact 211, a statewide phone and text-message line available in multiple languages that connects users with resources on a variety of issues, including mental health and substance use. The 988 Suicide and Crisis lifeline is also available 24/7.
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