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After the pandemic: What's next for mental health?

By Elizabeth Exline
May 10, 2021 • 3 minute read

Randy Phelps, PhD, has a good title for this article. He is the CEO of Give an Hour, an organization that provides access to free mental health care for military and civilian populations across the country. Given his professional role, Phelps is tuned in to the ways in which mental health has been impacted by a year of pandemic-induced isolation and fear. And in his estimation, the phrase, “Coming Out of the Cave,” is the most accurate way of summing up our return to normal life.

His staff reworked it to, “Coming Out of the Pandemic,” and used it for a one-page fact sheet.

Still, no matter which title you prefer, the question is the same. What is the mental-health fallout caused by COVID-19, and how can we address it?

Prepared for impact

When the pandemic first hit, most people’s concern was for their physical safety. Suddenly, we were re-thinking in-office jobs and going to the grocery store. We were not necessarily aware of how all that fear and stress would impact our mental well-being. Phelps, however, took a different view.

“Those of us in mental health knew going into this what would happen to folks,” he says.

With 40 years of experience as a clinical psychologist, the last 25 of which have been in national leadership positions around mental health, Phelps was well aware of the ways uncertainty and, as he puts it, “tremendous loss” (of life, liberty, work and so on) can impact a population. Staying home and wondering if sending your child to school or touching a doorknob might be the decision that kills you can, he notes, wreak havoc on one’s inner equilibrium.

“Those are seriously active ingredients for social disturbance,” Phelps observes.

Accordingly, where 20 to 25% of the U.S. population had a diagnosable mental health condition before the pandemic, CDC surveillance suggests that, by June 2020, closer to 40% of people were experiencing mental health or substance use problems.

Phelps sees the world starting to open back up and return to a pre-pandemic normal as an opportunity to discuss psychological health.

“As the physical health threats reduce, what rises to the top are mental health conditions,” he says.

A new normal (awareness)

Perhaps because of his experience with military populations through Give an Hour, Phelps likens the increased public awareness around mental health to the way post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) became part of the public consciousness after certain military engagements. The pandemic, he says, “has begun to deepen and widen the public’s understanding of mental health.”

As an example, Phelps cites the growing initiatives happening within sports communities to spotlight mental wellbeing. Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, he says, is promoting an online therapy provider, and the Indianapolis Colts have launched an awareness campaign called Kicking the Stigma.

Expanding awareness, Phelps says, is good, but its benefits are even better. The increased demand for emotional well-being services, he says, creates an opportunity to build a more robust infrastructure for the country’s mental health system. And expanded telehealth services — combined with people’s familiarity with them — means greater access to mental health services.

“People have learned that telehealth services are effective,” Phelps explains. “So, folks who would never see a counselor or a therapist have been able to connect with people for services with HIPPA-compliant virtual packages.”

Putting theory into practice

Perhaps the greatest advantage, however, is the sense that we as a country are better equipped to identify the signs of mental suffering and help. “I do think more of us will be tracking our emotional wellness one way or another through use of technology or just greater awareness,” Phelps observes. “We need to take care of each other better.”

To that end, Give an Hour has added to its existing resources a series of papers explaining how to recognize emotional suffering and, just as important, how to promote good mental health.

It has launched bigger initiatives as well, such as a week of webinars during Mental Health Awareness Month and collaborations with organizations that can extend the reach of its messaging around the importance of promoting emotional well-being.

As Phelps sees it, this is just part of a bigger trend. “We need to come together in business, in educational institutions and across sectors not only to create awareness but in the ability for people to get the care they need,” he explains.

After all, mental health awareness may have a designated month (May!), but it’s a reality that affects so many people and transcends time and place.

“Mental illness is everywhere, as we know,” Phelps says. “Put five people in a room, and someone is dealing with it.” And that’s just one more reason why emotional health is an issue that demands ongoing attention from everyone.

Get more tips on how to boost your mental health from Samantha Dutton, PhD, LCSW!

Mental health in the workplace presents its own opportunities and challenges. Join the conversation