COVID’s second curve: Protecting our mental health

by C.J. Davis ([email protected]) 1,132 views 

During the past six months, the world has become infinitely more familiar with charts and graphs. COVID-19 and its associated “curves” and “spikes” are prominent conversation points in our daily lives as well as our boardrooms.

It’s comforting to think that with precautions like physical distancing, proper masking and — hopefully — a future vaccine, the COVID-19 curve will flatten and, someday, end. However, it’s essential to acknowledge that a second curve, the COVID mental health crisis curve, is already forming. That, too, will cost lives if we don’t make concerted efforts to treat it.

Some 60% of Americans report negative mental health impacts during the pandemic, with a recent study showing 25% of all adults reporting depression symptoms. We know from studies conducted following previous pandemics, including this century’s SARS outbreak, that the adverse mental health effects of a pandemic can last at least one to three years following the completion of an event, which in COVID-19’s case we don’t even appear to be nearing yet. Anxiety, depression, substance use and even thoughts of self-harm or suicide are possible outcomes. These are topics we should be prepared to discuss now with our employees, communities and families.

As a former child and adolescent behavioral health provider and now CEO of Burrell Behavioral Health, I’m often asked how we can help individuals — especially children — navigate this mental health crisis. Some answers might be simpler than you think.

At Burrell, we discourage the use of the term social distancing. We want everyone to remain physically distant but remain socially connected in whatever ways you can. Online platforms, appropriate outdoor get-togethers and even good, old-fashioned phone calls are great ways to connect while protecting your health. Check in with someone every day, even if you think they may not need it. It could be you who needs it.

Secondly, take the time to listen. Within our own families and our businesses, open, non-judgmental communication is the surest way to ensure everyone feels heard, validated, safe, supported and connected. These are major trauma-informed care elements, which Burrell incorporates into every service we provide for clients and with our 1,600 employees. Over the past six months, we have held at least a dozen system- or region-wide Zoom calls to discuss topics ranging from masking to local health department guidelines, to the operational and financial impacts of COVID, cultural needs and more. Honest conversations and hard questions are welcomed. These calls have been invaluable to our leadership team and our employees in establishing trust and increasing buy-in, during a time when both have been critical to our ability to serve our clients.

We also launched the Be Well Community at the outset of COVID, a live event on our Facebook page every day at 12:45 p.m. and open to our communities. We encourage you to share this resource with your businesses, clients and families for a daily dose of self-care, behavioral health best practices, and maybe even a laugh (or tear) or two.

Finally, I cannot overstate the importance of remaining connected to behavioral health services. Finding appropriate care has never been easier, faster or more accepted. When Burrell merged with Arkansas-based nonprofit Youth Bridge in mid-2019, we did so because of Youth Bridge’s decades of service to Northwest Arkansas. We’re proud to continue this tradition and augment it with our areas of expertise, including outpatient psychiatry and therapy services for youth and adults, in our eight-county Arkansas service area. I know I speak for Burrell and our regional counterparts in the behavioral health industry when I say we are committed to serving everyone in need of help during this time.

Through compassion, connection and openness, we will get through this second curve of COVID together.

Dr. C.J. Davis is president & CEO of Springfield, Mo.-based Burrell Behavioral Health, which merged with Youth Bridge Inc. in May 2019. He can be reached via Twitter @cjdavisBBH. The opinions expressed are those of the author.