Mental Health Services Accessibility During COVID-19

Mental Health Services Accessibility During COVID-19

by Christine Nguyen | Edited by Cecilia Kim

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the development of vaccines, there has been a great deal of worry surrounding the existing virus and its impact on our health care system. In the era of COVID-19, there have been significant changes regarding mental health policies that have affected the ability of individuals to seek out these services. 

Legislative policies pertaining to mental health care directly impact people with mental disorders and those with substance use disorders. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed on March 27, 2020, was a $2 trillion stimulus package that included divisions for mental health care providers. $200 million was provided to the Federal Communications Commission to support care through telecommunications services and the purchase of the devices necessary to facilitate telecommunication. This funding enabled mental health professionals to provide continued care while respecting social distancing measures and other precautions. Furthermore, $425 million has gone towards the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to support mental health providers.

Beyond legislative policy, many social determinants of health have drastically changed as groups using mental health services are more consistently recognized as vulnerable populations. These include individuals suffering from substance abuse and those suffering from combined physical and mental conditions that have placed them at higher risk due to difficulties in following public health interventions and increased exposure to unsafe environments. According to the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, for individuals recently diagnosed with a mental disorder and contracted Covid-19, there is a death rate of 8.5% compared to the 4.7% death rate for individuals without a mental illness. Additionally, the economic implications of COVID-19 have forced a more significant proportion of individuals with disadvantaged backgrounds into poverty, dramatically decreasing accessibility to mental health services due to a lack of affordability. As those working in mental health services are working long shifts to keep up with the demand for the resources, it has become apparent that this pandemic has placed a strain on our nation’s resources and ability to prioritize mental health. 

Most notably, the national suicide and prevention hotlines have experienced a drastic increase in demand. Eleanor Letcher, executive director of CONTACT of Mercer County, NJ, has stated that the “infrastructure is not able to undertake calls and chats in the same way as pre-Covid times since the calls received are much more intense. People are unable to prioritize their mental health because of other stressors.” According to the American Psychological Association, Americans have reported higher general stress levels in 2020 than in recent years. With rising stress levels, there is a greater likelihood that individuals will seek out mental health services during this time. 

Other mental health-related resources, such as support groups, have been making strides to increase their availability; consequently, their ability to reach larger crowds of people in an online format. Despite this, many working in the field have observed decreased motivations to participate in these support groups due to virtual fatigue. Eleanor Letcher stated, “there are opportunities for support groups, but they’re getting fewer people to participate unless it’s a medical appointment. On optional things, many people are tired, so they’re not attending.” Although the pandemic has strained the availability of many resources, another issue of decreased incentives has plagued society and caused the underutilization of these resources as people live through fatigue and uncertainty surrounding the pandemic’s end.  

While the government has made strides to increase funding to support the workforce in the mental health sector, targeted policies have yet to be enacted to facilitate care for specific vulnerable populations. To reach this goal, there needs to be increased collaboration among policymakers, researchers, and clinicians to address the challenges of maintaining mental health during COVID-19. 

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