The devastation from the pandemic will be felt far into the future, especially among our nation’s more than 40 million unpaid family caregivers. Caregivers are resilient, but COVID-19 is burdening them with a whole different level of stress and anxiety from school closures and threatened employment to reduced access to external support. This public health crisis is also creating first-time caregivers as people come home from the hospital or rehab earlier than expected to free-up beds or are now supporting people recovering from the virus. Caregivers, who often feel isolated, unappreciated, or inadequate, now face more critical decision-making about the health and the potential isolation of loved ones.
Isolation is one of the cruelest components of the outbreak. Because the virus is highly contagious, quarantines are required and those who are exposed or infected must be completely isolated, and often people feel isolation even when they are not alone (persons with mental illnesses, caregivers for persons with dementia). In recent years, health professionals in the U.S. and the United Kingdom have begun sounding the alarm about the damage caused by an increasingly isolated society. Former surgeon general Dr. Vivek Murthy stated that loneliness is “associated with a reduction in lifespan and a higher risk of heart disease, dementia and depression and anxiety. It also has a profound effect on our health and affects how we show up in the workplace, school and our communities.”
The “social distancing” or what we really mean is physical distancing that is required as part of the “flatten the curve” strategy does not come without consequences. Some experts have intentionally shifted to the more mental-health friendly “physical distancing” terminology because it’s becoming clear that humans require connection for well-being.
The expression “there is no health without mental health” is popular among mental health advocates. This sentiment has sprung into an unexpected reality for the public dealing with the COVID-19 crisis. People are galvanized to find organic ways to bolster mental health and well-being by staying connected. We’ve seen examples of neighbors checking in on the elderly, videos of strangers singing together on Italian balconies, and cars festooned with signs and balloons to celebrate a birthday of a quarantined neighbor and the common question and directive, “how are you and stay well” in all of written and verbal communication.
Will people continue to count mental wellness as part of overall health? Will companies continue to express this level of compassion for those experiencing mental health conditions? Will the increased attention to mental health be a silver lining for those who suffer and for caregivers? When COVID-19 is tamed, we hope that mental health, isolation, and caregiving will be viewed through a new lens by multiple stakeholders and the public.
As we mark Mental Health Awareness Month, we hope one of the better outcomes of this public health crisis is the ability for the general public, policymakers, healthcare providers and employers to readily recognize the problems of stress, anxiety and depression - which were present prior to the epidemic and will remain - and find a new commitment to not only address mental health as a priority, but to do so with compassion and understanding.
Eve Byrd is director of the Carter Center Mental Health Program, and Jennifer Olsen is executive director of the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving. Both programs were founded by former First Lady Rosalynn Carter.