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Alisa Lapolt, Director of Policy & Advocacy at NAMI Tennessee, the National Alliance on Mental Illness

There’s a statistic that mental health advocates frequently use when discussing the prevalence of mental illness: At least one in five individuals will experience a mental health challenge in any given year.

That challenge could range from situational anxiety and depression to more debilitating conditions such as schizophrenia.

Despite the large segment of the population that struggles with mental health challenges, there is a loneliness that comes with mental illness. And the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and its quarantines and social distancing is deepening those feelings of loneliness and isolation in individuals with mental illness.

Unlike other diseases, mental illness carries a stigma against the person who has the condition. You would never tell a cancer patient to “just smile and get over it.” But too often, people mistakenly believe mental illness can simply be overcome with “positive thinking” and individuals with the diagnosis just need a “better outlook” on life. That thinking makes it difficult for people with mental illness to speak openly about their condition and connect with people about what they are feeling and experiencing.

They’ll often hide the condition from their bosses and co-workers out of fear that they will lose out on raises or promotions. Individuals who have been released from treatment can tell you how difficult it is to rent a house or an apartment if their condition is revealed.

The inward retreat that accompanies mental illness is now intensified by quarantines and stay-at-home orders. COVID-19 is creating more stress and anxiety among people whose daily routines and lives are in upheaval. Many have lost jobs and fear financial ruin. Others fear contracting the virus, while news reports of deaths create additional worry.

Already, reports out of East Tennessee show that suicide rates have increased in that part of the state. The Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network indicates that the number of people contacting their crisis line has increased 63 percent from March 2019 through March of this year.

There is a slow but steady recognition of the toll this pandemic is bringing to not only the physical health but the mental health of our friends, neighbors, families and co-workers.

The US Centers for Disease Control, which is the at the epicenter of the pandemic in our country, maintains a website with statistics about the coronavirus and devotes equal time to educating the public about the mental health implications it brings.

There’s a great opportunity to build “communities of resilience” in which communities evaluate and build upon their assets during and after a disaster.

Earlier this week, FEMA announced that it would be awarding Tennessee additional fundsto assist individuals and communities in recovering from the psychological effects of COVID-19. The money will go to community-based outreach and educational services, according to a FEMA news release. The state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services received a $2 million federal grant to evaluate and expand crisis services, the Behavioral Health Safety Net, and substance abuse treatment and recovery services over the next 16 months

While federal and state leaders fund and implement additional services, it’s critical that city and county government leaders consider ways to augment the efforts locally. As residents begin to resume activities, it’s important to recognize that many will begin exhibiting the signs of mental health challenges including PTSD from this experience, however long the pandemic lasts.

There’s a great opportunity to build “communities of resilience” in which communities evaluate and build upon their assets during and after a disaster. The structure includes outreach and education of at-risk individuals and communication and collaboration among service providers and stakeholders.

COVID-19 has changed the way we work and live, but it may very well change the way we look at mental health and wellness.

NAMI Tennessee has created a twice-weekly newsletter called NAMI at Home which includes tips and strategies for maintaining mental wellness while in isolation. Sign up for our e-News at www.namitn.org.

 

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