Contributor: COVID-19 and mental health stigma: A pandemic silver lining?
Contributor: COVID-19 and mental health stigma: A pandemic silver lining?

Contributor: COVID-19 and mental health stigma: A pandemic silver lining?

If there is a hint of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is the opportunity to talk openly about mental health issues.

One of the ways I have handled the COVID-19 pandemic is by looking for the few-and-far-between “silver liners” that are the result of the event. One such potential golden edge is a reduction in the stigma associated with mental health challenges. Stigma has long struggled to seek, access and receive services to help with mental challenges – ranging from seeking short-term counseling for temporarily increased levels of stress and anxiety to psychiatric treatment for mental disorders such as mood disorders (including depression), anxiety disorders and addiction .

Stigma is derived from the Greek word stizeinwhich means “to tattoo” and so from the Latin word stigma, meaning “to feel or feel.” Today, the Oxford Dictionary defines stigma as “a sign of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality or person.” In short, experiencing challenges with your mental health is a brand that most people do not want to have.

Although I am aware of ways in which stigma has a foothold in mental health – there is embarrassment and shame associated with having a mental illness or receiving mental health care – I have always had a hard time understanding why. If you remember the remarkable TV show, “My so-called life” from the 1990s, you can remember an episode where the main character, Angela, worries about whether a stain on her face will leave a scar. Her best friend, Rayanne, tells her, “Living leaves a scar.” Who among us gets through life without encountering challenges – mild, moderate or severe – that leave a scar or mark, and for which the help of others, including trained psychiatric professionals, has incredible value?

I recognize that my perspective is a function of growing up in a family that valued mental health and well-being, with parents who had the resources to make mental health care available to me at times when I needed it in my teens. – and young adulthood, and that was reinforced when I finished my education as a licensed clinical psychologist. And while this perspective may still be the exception and not the norm, the arbitrary nature of COVID-19 is the way it left its mark all in one way or another may have cut away the stigma associated with mental health and in that way may be one of the best sides of the COVID-19 pandemic.

You may have had COVID, and if you did not, you almost certainly know someone who did. In the early days of the pandemic, you were probably affected by the fears and insecurities that characterized our lives while we waited to fully understand how the virus was transmitted, what we could do to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe, and how we navigating the necessary parts of our lives – how to survive – while the world changed around us, sometimes at a pace that felt like minute by minute. A recent publication in the scientific journal The Lancet estimates that the excess mortality due to COVID-19 over the 2-year period from the beginning of 2020 to the end of 2021 globally was more than 120 deaths per 100,000 people. This means that the vast majority of us know someone, or know someone who knows someone who died of COVID.

In her book, All about love: New visions, bell hooks (pen name for Gloria Jean Watkins) wrote: “When we are taught that security always lies in uniformity, then diversity of any kind will appear as a threat.” Although the author’s ultimate point here is that diversity should not inherently be associated with a sense of danger, we can recognize that the universal nature of facing the uncertainty and consequences of the first completely global pandemic in our lives resulted in a uniformity that makes it more difficult to stigmatize mental challenges. If COVID-19 left its mark on your mental well-being, you are not alone.

I was recently invited to speak on the topics of mental health and behavioral medicine at a national conference that was held virtually, and when we started the session to record the presentation, one of the conference organizers commented: “This is the first year we have had a session focusing on mental health. ” While this represents progress, it is not enough to talk about mental health to really change the way we treat people with mental challenges and mental disorders. Discussion alone will not improve the mental health and well-being of people and peoples. It is up to policy makers, health systems, health providers and each of us to meet this moment and transform this opportunity into real change by promoting mental health parity, by increasing the availability of evidence-based and culturally competent mental health care at all levels of intensity and in multiple modalities, and by having the courage to take our mental health as seriously as we take our physical health.

Normalization of the importance and ubiquity of behavioral health has driven innovation in how such care can be delivered – often externally. For example, in my organization, members of the UPMC Health Plan can access RxWell, a mobile app that combines proven, self-directed deep breathing and other techniques with the help of a health coach. Many employers in the UPMC Health Plan network also offer access to counselors and support through UPMC Health Plan’s LifeSolutions employee assistance programs. Such support is offered over the phone, via video chat via LifeSolutions virtual counseling service or in person.

In addition to offering these important tools to our members, the UPMC Health Plan is also focused on community support to promote the importance of discussing and nurturing mental health. The Community Care Behavioral Health Organization (Community Care), a subsidiary of UPMC and the largest behavioral health care organization in the state of Pennsylvania, was established to support Pennsylvania’s mandatory managed care program for Medicaid recipients, HealthChoices, and has provided behavioral health services to Medicaid recipients. since 1999. This year marks the 25th anniversary of Community Care, and starting in May and the rest of the year, they will celebrate their achievements and partnerships with a range of events. These events include a 4-part Innovations in Behavioral Health Lectures series, a mindfulness presentation, a County Collaborations Webinar series and a Healing art art exhibition featuring creative works by members of the UPMC Health Plan. Timely information about these events will be shared on our new blog titled “Information.Insight.Innovation.”

The best description of how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the stigma surrounding mental health is not that it has reduced stigma, it is that COVID-19 has created a possibility to reduce the stigma associated with mental health. COVID-19 has broken the armor of stigma; it has put a foot in the door that for so long has barred people from seeking and receiving help of any kind for mental challenges. Keeping mental health in the shade does not protect us from shame and embarrassment, it deprives us of opportunities to observe – and celebrate – our resilience. Making real changes in how we approach mental health challenges will not reveal our weaknesses – it will reveal our strengths. Embracing the need to take care of our mental health is an act of humanity and an act of love.

In the words of bell-hooks: “When we choose to love, we choose to move towards fear – towards alienation and separation. The choice to love is a choice to connect – to find ourselves in the other.”

Ellen Beckjord, PhD, MPH, is Associate Vice President of Population Health and Clinical Transformation at the UPMC Health Plan. She is a behavioral researcher, epidemiologist, and licensed clinical psychologist in a disciplined pursuit of harnessing the power of connection to promote authentic connection to place health, peace, and abundance within equal reach of all.

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