SPOTLIGHT | May 06, 2021

COVID-19’s Impact on Mental Health

In Tennessee, Altha Stewart, M.D., saw troubling signs of COVID-19-related stress early in the pandemic, but as the months passed, something else became clear: African American, Hispanic/Latino, and other socially vulnerable populations in her community and throughout the country seemed to be suffering more than others – and it wasn’t just because of longstanding inequities in medical care.

It was also because of wide disparities in access to mental health services.

The pandemic had either disrupted or halted access to these services in many communities of color, leaving community health workers scrambling to meet the growing demand. Many CEAL teams reported increasing numbers of people with anxiety, depression, thoughts of suicide, substance use disorders, and fears of getting sick from the virus.

More than a year later, the problems seem only to have worsened, said Stewart, a professor of psychiatry and senior associate dean for community health engagement at the University of Tennessee College of Medicine. “People are having real psychological challenges just with day-to-day living with COVID for so long,” said Stewart, who also is a member of the Tennessee CEAL team. “The pandemic has brought a radical change that none of us were prepared for. Add to that, the economic downturn and the social and racial unrest in the country, and it’s just a recipe for mental health problems.”

“The mental health problems are not going to go away when the public health crisis of this pandemic is over, and we need to be prepared to deal with the impact.”

Parinda Khatri, Ph.D.

Chief Clinical Officer

These mental health problems have impacted CEAL’s efforts to help get community members both tested and vaccinated.

“In the Memphis area, middle-aged Black women are the most reluctant to get the vaccine,” Stewart said. “They are now concerned with who will take care of their children and family if they have an adverse reaction.”

The Tennessee CEAL team, which also includes the Cherokee Health Systems (CHS), a federally qualified community health and mental health care organization with 26 sites in 14 Tennessee counties, began to see unprecedented demand for mental health care services from people who had never had mental health difficulties before.

“People’s support systems, including those who relied on established networks to keep them sober and off of drugs and alcohol, are gone,” said Parinda Khatri, Ph.D., the organization’s chief clinical officer. “The traditional methods of offering mental health services are not working.”

This unmet need led to the establishment of COVID Crisis support lines for residents throughout the state. Now people can call a toll-free number in their region and talk to a counselor, or get referrals or coping tips.

“We needed to have as many touch points as possible to reach people,” Khatri said. Mobile health units are also now being staffed with behavioral specialists to talk to people during testing, vaccinations, or while providing other medical services.

Clearly, Khatri said, much work has yet to be done. “The mental health problems are not going to go away when the public health crisis of this pandemic is over,” she said, “and we need to be prepared to deal with the impact.”

For more on COVID-19 and mental health, watch Ask The Expert with Dr. Altha J. Stewart.

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