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  • Nicole Ekiss, LCSW

A Seat at the Table

Impact on mental health

Early research has revealed that ⅓ one third of Americans are reporting experiencing mental health challenges caused by COVID-19. Individuals may not have experienced mental health issues prior to COVID-19 or COVID-19 has exacerbated their symptoms. This is incredibly significant as we have been facing COVID-19 since mid-March and that means the increase has been swift and large.


What might that mean for individuals who are experiencing those new or increased symptoms?

They may be lacking in appropriate coping mechanisms to manage these symptoms AND it could also mean that their current coping skills/strategies are no longer working. A recent study revealed that prescriptions for mental health medications filled per week jumped 21% between mid-February and mid-March. Anti-anxiety medication prescriptions increased 34%, anti-depressants 19% and insomnia aid medications by 15%. These numbers demonstrate that individuals may need more self-care strategies and tools to manage their mental health. Medication may be necessary on either a temporary basis or moving forward as part of their self-care routine, but we want to also be strengthening other aspects of coping and self-care.


Reduced Access for All

Unfortunately mental health services have been hard to access across our country for years. Specifically, access is reduced for those in minority and marginalized groups due to reduced services in certain areas and a very low provider base. Transportation, time and cost can be barriers to access for many. During COVID-19, access to mental health is even more difficult due to sheltering in place orders and fears surrounding the pandemic. Although mental health services are available via telehealth, this may not be available to all who need the services (lack of internet, computer) and may not be a comfortable option for those needing services (hard to humanly connect virtually).


Grief and COVID-19

It is no wonder that during this pandemic grief and loss are paramount. Everyone is grieving the life they once had in terms of not being able to see loved ones, friends, and co-workers due to sheltering in place. As of today, the U.S. has had over 100,000 deaths due to COVID-19 and each is someone’s mother, father, daughter, sister, brother, aunt, child, grandparent - someone that is loved and valued. Not only have individuals lost someone they love and value, they have not been able to be with them or family when they died. Funeral and life celebrations have been reduced significantly in terms of who can attend or if the ceremony can take place at all. Unprocessed grief can result in significant difficulties for an individual's mental health.


Racial Disparities

Racial and ethnic minorities with serious mental illness are more likely to experience:

  • The use of psychiatric emergency services rather than community support services

  • Involuntary hospitalizations as a result of seeking care

  • Emergency treatment as a result of law enforcement interactions

  • Over diagnosis of Schizophrenia

  • Higher doses of antipsychotic medications

Stigma

Mental health stigma can be divided into two distinct types: social stigma is characterized by prejudicial attitudes and discriminating behavior directed towards individuals with mental health problems as a result of the label they have been given. Self-stigma is the internalizing of discrimination. Individuals may think that their illness is a sign of character weakness or incompetence, develop feelings of low self-esteem, be less willing to seek treatment, or limit their social interactions and fail to pursue work or housing opportunities.

Some of the most commonly held beliefs surrounding mental health illnesses are that people with mental health diagnoses are dangerous – especially those with schizophrenia, alcoholism, and drug dependence, that conditions are self-inflicted, and that people with mental health problems are hard to talk to.

Stigmatizing beliefs about individuals with mental health challenges are held by a wide range of individuals, regardless of whether they know someone with a mental health problem or have experience with mental health challenges. Mental health stigma is even widespread in the medical profession and among mental health professionals.

The media regularly plays a role in perpetuating stigmatizing stereotypes of people with mental health challenges. For example, Schizophrenia is often portrayed in movies and television shows in ways that are plagued by stereotypes and misinformation. Characters with schizophrenia are often presented as “homicidal maniacs” in horror films.

As consumers of media and social media, we have a responsibility to stop using words like “crazy” and “deranged” in derogatory or flippant fashions. We also need to avoid using clinical diagnoses in non-clinical ways. Saying someone is OCD or ADHD based on one or two characteristics is not only inaccurate, but incredibly harmful to individuals experiencing those true diagnoses.

Stigma brings about damaging social impacts on those suffering from mental health challenges. It creates an environment where people are resistant to seek support or treatment and this can cause low self-esteem, social isolation, poor physical and mental health outcomes, and devastating financial consequences.


Take a Seat at the Table

In an effort to address mental health stigma and improve parity, the Kennedy Forum Illinois sponsors events that promote open discussions surrounding mental health topics and the reduction of stigma. This year, the Kennedy Forum Illinois sponsored an event entitle, Take a Seat at the Table, in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month with the goal of creating environment where individuals can safely discuss mental health, share their stories, and help foster understanding and compassion for those struggling with mental health challenges. The following video examines the challenges of COVID-19 in terms of mental health, access to treatment, and racial disparities and really digs into what stigma is and how we can address it.


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