To address the mental health consequences of the pandemic, follow Kennedy’s lead
In the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. is facing another potential public health crisis – in mental health. Any mention or plan to address this crisis has notably been absent in the briefings held by national leadership. Instead, countless mental health organizations and professionals scramble to provide guidance to millions of people whose lives have been turned upside down and are struggling, cut off from routine and each other. The one notable voice in the wilderness on this issue has been Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass.), whose pre-COVID priorities related to physical and mental health care have rendered him an ideal advocate in the COVID era. The public mental health crisis can be mitigated if officials follow Kennedy’s lead.
Health care workers, the elderly and persons living with serious mental illness are particularly at risk for mental health difficulties during the current pandemic, but others are also experiencing emotional challenges. In a recent Kaiser family foundation poll, 45 percent of adults said the pandemic has affected their mental health, and 19 percent said it has had a “major impact.” Data from China published in the Lancet and prior work on the SARS and Ebola epidemics, paints a sobering picture of the potential mental health crisis to come. Moreover, the consequences of physical distancing, including over 40 million Americans unemployed and multitudes facing bankruptcy and eviction, are toxic to mental health.
Kennedy immediately recognized the mental health effects of this pandemic, stating on Twitter on March 13, “At this moment we cannot ignore mental and behavioral health. The impact of isolation, anxiety, and fear are profound.” He is right. Kennedy’s consistent recognition of, and advocacy for, mental and behavioral health issues makes him a stand-out leader for a nation in which (annually among adults), 36.3 million (14.6 percent) live with a mental health disorder (excluding serious mental illness), over 20 million (7.4 percent) experience addiction (including 2 million caught in the opioid epidemic), close to 11 million seriously consider suicide (1.4 million of whom make an attempt), and over 1 in 3 adults over 45 identify as being lonely. Social isolation, economic stress, interpersonal loss, and other disruptions, will only worsen this status quo. These factors, ubiquitous in today’s pandemic, will affect all of us. This is to say nothing of grief, as people mourn the loss of their pre-COVID lives, as well as COVID-related deaths.
Kennedy has worked to get ahead of this wave of mental health issues by providing at least-daily digital connection for anyone with internet access (which is certainly not all Americans), deploying volunteers to call elderly community members, and turning to experts to educate his followers. On the first day of the Massachusetts shelter-in-place directive, Kennedy hosted mental health advocate and sports journalist, Trenni Kusnierek on his Kennedy Evening Broadcast. A week later, he hosted Professor Risa Weisberg, Boston University School of Medicine, for a digital mental health town hall. Kennedy followed up by posting mental health resources on his congressional Facebook page, including concrete strategies for mental health and well-being, suicide prevention and domestic violence crisis numbers, online outlets to find a therapist for telehealth, and other resources from respected organizations. On April 23, Kennedy again prioritized mental health, when he hosted the cast of “Dear Evan Hansen” during the Kennedy Evening Broadcast, “Mental Health During COVID-19.” Most recently, in recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month, Team Kennedy is providing reliable resources every week on “Mental Health Mondays.”
There are many ways in which Rep. Kennedy has “met the moment,” calling for free coronavirus testing and treatment, drafting a comprehensive COVID financial relief policy for all American families, plus an essential workers compensation fund, highlighting the widespread issues in the U.S. childcare system, insisting we address the racial disparities and social justice issues that run through the pandemic and Americans’ notions of who is “essential,” and fighting for vote-by-mail. Kennedy’s inclusion of mental and behavioral health puts him at an even higher level of leadership, and this choice is entirely consistent with his long standing priorities, including his “act of malice” retort to Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, his fight for mental health parity and accountability in this regard, and his demand for action on the opioid epidemic. Kennedy’s leadership has been building for years, and we would be wise to follow it now.
Karestan Koenen, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychiatric Epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.