Jeney Zhang, MPA Candidate, Department of Public Policy and Public Affairs
As we navigate these extraordinary times amid a global pandemic, economic closures, social distancing, and transitions to online learning have severely impacted the mental health and psyche of us all. The physiological impact of COVID-19 stretches far beyond the physical illness wrought by the disease; the new normal of isolation and quarantine is taking a mental toll. Society, as a whole, is now confronted with and needs to learn how to cope with the fear and anxiety of not only avoiding contracting the disease, but also the sense of economic, social, and academic uncertainty. The stress inflicted by the onset of the pandemic and its aftermath is driving a current mental health crisis. Nearly half of Americans report issues related to mental health due to the COVID-19 crisis and a hotline dedicated to emotional distress saw a more than 1,000% increase in April as compared to last year.
Massachusetts has begun taking steps to address this important issue. On March 15, Governor Charlie Baker issued an executive order requiring insurers to cover all “medically necessary” services via telehealth, including behavioral and mental health. While this is a step in the right direction, the underlying issues of mental health treatment in America still remain. This order expands people’s ability to access behavioral telehealth, but issues of mental health parity related to decisions of medical necessity and rate structures as compared to physical health must still be addressed. Though the stigma of mental illness has decreased in recent years, the treatment and management of it still do not measure up to standards of care associated with physical ailments.
The Massachusetts Legislature is currently working to address these critical barriers to improving access to mental health care. In early February, the state Senate unanimously approved the “Mental Health ABC Act”, designed to put mental health care on par with other physical forms of medical care, remove prior authorization from insurers before receiving care, and expand mental health access to underserved populations. The bill now heads to the Massachusetts House.
The Commonwealth and the whole of America have been in the throes of a mental health crisis for decades and the current COVID-19 pandemic only serves to exacerbate the issue and further expose our lack of preparedness to handle the crisis. Though governments actions to reduce barriers and provide greater access to mental health care are moving in the right direction, the fact remains we lack the proper infrastructure to provide the care needed. The mental health care system in America is vastly underfunded, fragmented, and ill-prepared to handle the volume of new cases sure to arise from this pandemic. Even prior to the current crisis, 1 in 5 US adults suffered from mental illnesses yet less than half receive the necessary treatment. We can hope a silver lining will be found amid current hardships. Perhaps, because the pandemic exposed the already-strained mental health resources and capacity in this country, renewed attention, funding, and planning will be given to this sector as we move forward and recover.
For those suffering during these trying times, the state, other government agencies, and the University Health Services at UMass Boston offer resources supporting mental health and strategies to cope. Prioritizing your mental health and coping with the added stress will make you stronger and better prepared to tackle this new normal, for however longer it may last.