A few weeks ago, my therapist told me that she was pregnant and that she would go on maternity leave in a few months. I was shocked. And excited for her, of course.
The thing is, I’ve never met her in person. We started meeting toward the end of last summer through telehealth, so I only know her from the shoulders up.
I am just one of many who has sought mental health services in the past year. Since Covid-19 spread to the United States, the number of people, particularly young adults and minorities, experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression has surged. According to a Gallup survey conducted in November, Americans’ evaluation of their mental health is “worse than it has been at any point in the last two decades.” A CDC report from June found that 62.9% of young adults reported symptoms of either depression or anxiety, a significant increase from June 2019.
Given Covid-19’s health and mortality risks, economic impact on families, and isolating mitigation measures, this up-tick is not surprising. As young adults, we are supposed to be discovering our future and exploring new opportunities, yet for the past year, the pandemic has put many of our dreams on hold. Grappling with this uncertainty is daunting. To top it off, finding adequate mental health care is more difficult than ever.
Even before Covid-19, the United States’ mental health care system was severely ill-equipped to meet the nation’s needs. A 2018 study by Merrit Hawkins found that approximately one in five people in the United States suffers from a mental health condition in a given year, yet only 41% receive treatment.
Now consider psychiatry, for example. More than half of the United States’ counties have zero practicing psychiatrists, two-thirds of primary care physicians report difficulty finding psychiatric help for their patients, and the number of emergency department admissions related to psychiatric services has increased around 50% over the past two decades. The number of psychiatrists is also projected to decrease rapidly in the next few years as more than 60% are over the age of 55 and are expected to retire. The gap between supply and demand applies to other mental health providers as well, including clinical social workers, psychologists, and therapists.
The skyrocketing demand for treatment during the pandemic has significantly exacerbated this shortage. Many providers have tried rearranging their schedules, adding hours, and shortening appointments to accommodate the influx of patients, but this is not sustainable or sufficient, even on a temporary basis. Despite providers’ best efforts to address the increased demand, many seeking mental health services this year (including myself) have pursued a number of unsuccessful referrals only to languish on long waitlists. A few months can make a dire difference.
But there may be a few silver linings. First, the pandemic has highlighted the effectiveness and accessibility of virtual mental health providers, potentially offering a lifeline to our crippled mental health care system. In addition to traditional in-person therapy moving online, virtual care apps like Talkspace, BetterHelp, and Ginger have increased access and lowered costs. Digital care is certainly not for everyone, but it can offer much-needed convenience and affordability. After meeting with my therapist over telehealth for close to half a year, I can’t imagine switching to in-person sessions. Everyone’s Covid-19 experience is unique, but one factor is universal: people are struggling. With so many under higher levels of emotional stress, there seems to be a sense of shared trauma that is lessening the stigma around mental health. I’ve noticed that even my friends and I speak much more casually about how we are feeling. Before this year, I had no idea that most of them seek therapy, too.
This destigmatization has manifested itself in particular for Generation Z over social media. It’s not uncommon for my peers to repost infographics with tips for dealing with anxiety and other mental health issues. Just this past week, Insta- gram was inundated with posts for National Eating Disorder Awareness week.
Easing the stigma won’t resolve our inadequate mental health care, but it is a necessary place to start. At Hopkins, de-spite increased student awareness, it’s not difficult to imagine that many of my peers are silently struggling, unaware of the resources available to them or reluctant to admit that they need help. I certainly was. But meeting with my advisor and a school counselor helped me understand that I could seek guidance beyond the Hopkins community.
The mental impact of Covid-19-related trauma, especially for adolescents and minorities, will endure long after vaccines combat the virus. I hope that this serves as a wakeup call to the country, and more particularly Hopkins, that our “new normal” must prioritize physical and mental wellbeing. A true recovery cannot exist without addressing both.