This Semester, I have had the pleasure of working on a letter-writing campaign to raise awareness and government support for the mental health crisis that has taken place during the COVID-19 pandemic. The simple fact of the matter is that as a society we were already well within a mental health crisis with a large stigma against seeking mental healthcare. The lockdown put people who already had untreated mental health issues in isolation which has been proven to be detrimental to mental health. The process itself from the research stage to the now implementation has been very educational for me as a leader. Understanding how deep this issue runs and being able to have even a small impact is truly gratifying. Whether or not any government action is taken as a result of this campaign my goal is to bring the issue to the forefront of not only the government’s but also the public’s mind so that we all come to recovery from this pandemic with mental health in mind.
My initial research question this year was: what have the key mental health impacts been as a result of the first lockdown period of the COVID-19 pandemic and how can we, as a newly distanced society, address them? With this question in mind, my goal was to address the ongoing mental health crisis which was being severely worsened by the isolation of the pandemic. My findings were consistent with this theory that this long term isolation was wreaking havoc on the mental health of many people and collectively as a society.
While very little peer reviewed research has been done directly on the topic of the mental health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic as a result of its currency, many studies have aimed to look into similar issues as those which are faced during this pandemic. Based on information from the SARS epidemic in Toronto, periods of quarantine had negative effects on patients’ mental health and led to extended depressive episodes (Hawryluck et. al. 1209-1210). These episodes increased in severity as the quarantine period increased. Medical Doctors with specialties in psychiatry Betty Pfefferbaum, and Carol North published in the New England Journal of Medicine arguing that mental health needs to be a chief concern in medical care given to COVID patients as well as healthcare staff. In an informal study conducted as a follow up to a published study researcher Jean Twenge found that the participants interviewed in 2020, were eight times more likely to have a screening indicating mental illness than those in the 2018 study (Twenge). Another important aspect of the mental health concerns are the developmental health concerns for school aged children; Existing studies of social isolation suggest that isolation in developmental years may fail to acquire the social skills including reading cues, understanding social norms, and social etiquette, which could result in future problematic behavior (Matthews et, al. 226).
Previous studies on the effects of social isolation and even medically necessary quarantine on mental health have found a very strong negative relationship between the two (Hawryluck et. al. 1209-1210), (Matthews et, al. 226). The current situation however is on a scale we have not seen or faced as a society in over 100 years. Emily Skehill, programs manager for Mental Health America believes that a contributing factor to this current mental health crisis is that the United States was already in a mental health crisis when the pandemic began. She believes that a great number of people went into lockdown with untreated mental health issues. In other words, the baseline was already very low before society experienced the trauma of the pandemic. In addition, as the situation stands now Skehill believes that healing is not a quick process as so much of the negative effects of the pandemic are still ongoing. People are still without jobs, separated from loved ones, and suffering the loss of normalcy. Organizations such as The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention organization aimed at assisting LGBTQ+ youth has reported an increase in their crisis contact over the pandemic and believe that only about one half of all queer people are quarantined in households accepting of their sexuality.
The Trevor Project:
The Trevor Project is a widely known organization which collects resources aimed at helping children and adolescents struggling with their sexuality. They do significant work in terms of connecting people to mental health resources as well as making different mental health issues more widely known. This organization has a strong interest in the mental health effects of COVID-19 as the stay at home orders forced many children and teens back into the closet, or in positions where they did not feel safe in their sexuality
Mental Health America:
Mental Health America located in Arlington VA serves as a mental health advocacy organization. They promote public policy which improves the mental health of Americans, as well as those policies which advocate for treatment of mental health. They have dedicated part of their website, as well as several webinars into the subject of COVID-19’s effect on mental health. Throughout the pandemic, they have filed numerous letters with Congress and other government organizations to request that an emphasis on mental health be placed on public health policy especially during this pandemic where mental health has become such a detrimental problem within our society.
Appraisal of Past Solutions:
In 2014, 19 year old Maddison Holleran from northern New Jersey attending the University of Pennsylvania took her own life. This event sparked a national conversation about mental health and how it cannot be ignored any longer. In a very large way, Maddison’s father started the modern conversation about mental health in the United States by going and speaking to whichever radio show, or journalist would interview him. He eventually went on to publish a book “What Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of an All-American Teen,” as well as setting up the Madison Holleran Foundation. This marks the past approach of mental health to talk about it. Before this conversation, mental health was largely ignored or simply not talked about. This was a monumental step in dealing with mental health issues. While the situations are different, the approach of having a conversation, talking about the issue and not letting it go ignored is very important and effective in the current situation.
In terms of the current situation of the increased mental health crisis resulting from the pandemic, both Mental Health America, and The Trevor Project have been offering solutions to try and help. Mental Health America is more focused on policy. They have sent various letters to the United States Congress including a letter requesting that provisions be made to expand coverage for telemedicine in mental healthcare. In addition they have been consistently educating the public about mental health as they strive to normalize it as well as offer resources to those in need of assistance. The Trevor Project has a different approach as their main aim is more people focused rather than policy focused. They have increased advertising for their online services such as “Trevorspace”, a virtual platform for LGBTQ+ youth to share their experiences and form a virtual community. In addition they offer crisis assistance in the form of hotlines or texting and other messaging services in order to prevent self harm and sucide on the individual level.
I am trying to launch a letter writing campaign aimed at getting government officials at all levels to address the mental health ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic in their recovery plans. I will achieve this by providing sample letters on social media profiles for the campaign and being active on those social media sites to encourage followers to send in letters to their representatives. A portion of the media presence including the letter itself is housed in a website which has been fully launched and serves as a home base of the campaign. The website contains a broader explanation of the information posted on social media as well as a better picture of the relevancy of the mental health crisis being faced by our nation and other nations worldwide. When constituents write to their leaders, there tends to be a greater response than when the issue is just discussed among peers. This campaign has the ability to get the concerns of everyday people watching the mental health of their communities decline to those in the position to put mental health to the forefront of the pandemic response.
In summation, there is an incredible body of evidence that social isolation is strongly correlated with mental health issues, and that COVID-19 is an incredibly large scale demonstration of this. Although the problem is ongoing and thus difficult to study, enough research has been done on the components of this issue in the past to make the connection between the pandemic and the ongoing mental health crisis. This mental health crisis began long before the pandemic occurred, but has been compounded and intensified as a result of the isolation, economic hardships, and sense of loss associated with the pandemic. While this project will not solve the issue in its entirety, it will help to normalize conversations about mental health amidst, and in relation to the pandemic.
This is a full list of my sources for this project:
Hawryluck, Laura, et al. “SARS Control and Psychological Effects of Quarantine, Toronto, Canada.” Emerging Infectious Diseases, vol. 10, no. 7, 2004, pp. 1206–1212., doi:10.3201/eid1007.030703.
Matthews, Timothy, et al. “Social Isolation and Mental Health at Primary and Secondary School Entry: A Longitudinal Cohort Study.” Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, vol. 54, no. 3, 2015, pp. 225–232., doi:10.1016/j.jaac.2014.12.008.
Pfefferbaum, Betty, and Carol S. North. “Mental Health and the Covid-19 Pandemic.” New England Journal of Medicine, vol. 383, no. 6, 2020, pp. 510–512., doi:10.1056/nejmp2008017.
Twenge Professor of Psychology, Jean. “New Study Shows Staggering Effect of Coronavirus Pandemic on America’s Mental Health.” The Conversation, 6 Sept. 2020, theconversation.com/new-study-shows-staggering-effect-of-coronavirus-pandemic-on-americas-mental-health-137944.
Twenge, Jean M., and Brian H. Spitzberg. “Declines in Non‐Digital Social Interaction among Americans, 2003–2017.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology, vol. 50, no. 6, 2020, pp. 363–367., doi:10.1111/jasp.12665.
Wang, Jingyi, et al. “Social Isolation in Mental Health: a Conceptual and Methodological Review.” Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, vol. 52, no. 12, 2017, pp. 1451–1461., doi:10.1007/s00127-017-1446-1.