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WILLIAMS: Pandemic has taken toll on Americans’ mental health

In the U.S., almost half of all adults will experience mental illness during their lifetime. These are rates similar to people who suffer from heart disease. Imagine saying to someone with heart disease that they are weak for having it, or that they cannot get care because it is less important or valued. This has been the stigma that those with mental health issues have endured for decades.

Mental health has long been considered categorically unequal to physical health. This is perhaps best evidenced by the fact that the fight to create parity between the way insurance covers mental-health/substance-use disorders and other medical conditions is ongoing.

The stigma of mental health has far reaching implications to everyone and impacts areas including individual relationships, employment opportunities, health care costs, and numerous quality of life measures. However, our views of mental illness may have started to change in the past year.

The psychological toll of the coronavirus pandemic is undeniable. At the height of lockdowns last spring, one in three Americans displayed signs of clinical depression or anxiety, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. There’s no way to predict or quantify the long-term impact of this collective suffering, but experts say people are now discussing their mental health and wellbeing more freely than before the pandemic, providing a chance to break down some of the stigma that has long surrounded mental illness.

More than 70 percent of people with diagnosable mental health conditions do not receive treatment worldwide. Mental health stigma is one of the most significant barriers to treatment seeking. Yet, this level of active stigma usually associated with the current level of mental distress experienced during COVID-19 lockdown does not seem to be present.

The awareness of COVID-19’s universal threat to our wellbeing has connected people in a new way worldwide. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic’s devastating effects, going forward, this pandemic could dramatically reduce mental health stigma leading to increased mental health help-seeking globally; talking about our mental health will become a new norm.

Instead of looking at the post-COVID-19 mental health future through a lens of inevitable doom, we can, and should, use this moment as the impetus for the changes that mental health care has always pushed for. Let’s invest in expanding access to affordable mental health care coverage in our communities, companies, hospitals, and through the use of tele-health platforms.

Let’s finally enforce parity and make mental health care coverage and reimbursement equal to physical health care. And, let’s say, once and for all, that having a mental illness is a disease that requires treatment, just like any other illness.

Scott Williams is the COO of Woodlands Behavioral Health Network. He can be reached at scottw@woodlandsbhn.org.

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