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Pandemic Sparks Awareness of the Importance of Mental Health

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By Mark McCullough ·
Pandemic Sparks Awareness of the Importance of Mental Health
Pictured: Pat Garcia. Member-provided photo.

The headline in the Washington Post couldn’t have been clearer: “The coronavirus pandemic is pushing America into a mental-health crisis.” The Wall Street Journal warned, “Coronavirus Pandemic Takes Toll on Mental Health,” while USA Today reported, “Parents fear for their children's mental health amid coronavirus pandemic.

While one in five people in the United States lives with mental illness, everyone faces challenges in life that can affect their mental health. But these conditions are often stigmatized and treated differently from physical health conditions.

Now, as AFSCME joins other groups in recognizing May as Mental Health Month, the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on our communities shows that people’s mental health is as important as their physical and economic health.

“Fear is a very real thing that can impact your physical well-being, your relationships and even your ability to do your job,” said Pat Garcia, a licensed clinical social worker with New Jersey’s  Hoboken University Medical Center and a member of  District 1199J NUHHCE/AFSCME. “Right now, there is uncertainty, financial stress, lack of direction everywhere you turn with what is happening in the world, so the need for mental health services is increasingly becoming a focus of attention.”

Garcia is one of 50,000 behavioral health professionals represented by AFSCME across the country. During this pandemic, she has seen the union fighting hard to get front-line staff like her the tools they need to do their jobs as safely as possible.

“Right now, I am luckily able to do most of my work over the phone but my caseload is just growing,” Garcia said. “I’m handling at least seven in-depth cases a day, not including other calls and follow up, and we know that it is only going to grow.”

The Associated Press reports that getting mental health services was difficult even for insured Americans before COVID-19. “Now experts fear the virus will make the situation worse, putting the patients most in need at risk of falling through the cracks and inflicting on countless others newfound grief, anxiety and depression,” the news service reported.

Like  other AFSCME members who serve at-risk populations, Garcia knows that many people who need help have been unable to get it while shelter-in-place policies are in effect. This will lead to a large spike of people seeking care just as state and local governments and health care systems look for ways to fill budget holes by possibly cutting the very services people are trying to access.

“Congress needs to pass more direct aid because we can’t bring our communities back if people can’t even cope with what their new reality is,” Garcia said. “The problems we face are different for everyone, so for people who, for example, have had COVID-19 in their family, and for others who may have lost a job, the potential for mental illness could come at different times. And the potential for extended periods of social isolation as the virus continues to flare up in places will stoke the flames of anxiety as well.”

Garcia said that the best way for her fellow AFSCME members to observe Mental Health Month is to first speak up for funding for critical services like mental health. She also asked people to understand that the stress and anxiety they are feeling is real and to seek help if needed. Finally, she encouraged people to reach out to talk to those who may be struggling or feel isolated.

“Human contact can make a difference, even if that contact needs to be done virtually,” she said.

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