Opinion: COVID has claimed many lives, but it’s also saved others

The pandemic raised awareness about mental health issues and affirmed the importance of treatment

By Helen Marlo

Special to The Examiner

My patient looked at me like she was about to share a shameful, dirty secret during a psychotherapy session. Eyes averted, she exclaimed, “The pandemic saved my life,” because she had finally decided to prioritize her mental health and seek the help she needed.

As a practicing clinical psychologist, professor and graduate department chair, I have provided psychotherapy, education and training for graduate students and mental health professionals for over three decades. My patient’s experience expresses what I have heard, repeatedly, since the pandemic began — a sentiment many are reluctant to share.

While it has claimed many lives, the pandemic has saved others by humanizing mental health. It raised awareness about the ubiquity of mental health conditions and affirmed the vital importance of mental health treatment. Moreover, the pandemic encouraged many of us to reevaluate our lives and realize that having a life worth living matters. By stimulating anxieties around death, perhaps, the pandemic provided an opening for fuller consciousness about life.

A number of paradigm shifts around mental health are well underway. One life-saving response has been the evolution of tele-mental health care, which became essential in the early days of the pandemic and quickly gained legitimacy and popularity. This format can ease psychological and practical barriers and support greater access to mental health care.

Promising legislative and political actions have also accompanied this mindset shift, recognizing the value of mental health care by investing in mental health education, training and improved working conditions.

The Behavioral Health Workforce Revitalization Act (SB 964), introduced by Senator Scott Wiener, takes a holistic approach to mental healthcare by supporting behavioral health-care workers through scholarships, accelerated training programs, simplified licensing regulations and financial benefits to retain behavioral health workers and students in the field.

Additional legislation proposed by Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond would provide scholarships and streamlined licensing processes to complement the state’s investments in community schools and student mental health. Senator Anthony Portantino’s Pupil Instruction: Mental Health Education bill (SB 224), which was passed into law, mandates mental health education in public schools from qualified instructors.

These legislative efforts aim to address the surge in mental health concerns and accompanying shortage of mental health practitioners. Some research reports that rates of mental health problems have tripled during the pandemic. The steady increase in mental health problems, pre-pandemic, is well documented. Between 1990 and 2016, the Global Burden of Disease study demonstrated an 11% increase in mental health and substance use disorders in the United States.

Relatedly, a 2018 report from the Healthforce Center at UCSF predicted an 11% pre-pandemic shortage of psychologists, licensed marriage and family therapists, licensed professional clinical counselors and licensed clinical social workers by 2028. We have markedly increased need and have far fewer mental health professionals to meet that need.

These sobering findings are compounded by another major pandemic trend: the “Great Resignation.” For many providers, being “in the trenches” is where the work happens. Ironically, the Old English meaning of service — “of religious devotion” — encompasses what calls many to service. Still, mental health care providers are not immune to burnout and exhaustion.

These laudable legislative actions may help change the face of mental health care for practitioners and patients. But simply providing more funding is not the only solution. It is imperative to support behavioral health-care workers while not compromising on the quality of training — which would come at the expense of those we serve and, ultimately, cost society more.

The quality and effectiveness of mental health services vary widely. Psychotherapy research consistently shows high drop-out rates: Approximately 50% of patients leave early. Novice clinicians are most likely to lose patients with some reporting drop-out rates of 75%. Well-trained and well-compensated licensed mental health professionals can help counter this disturbing trend.

Indeed, my patient felt the pandemic saved her life, because she was able to name, normalize and understand her mental health concerns, and ultimately seek convenient and accessible treatment from an experienced practitioner.

To be sure, this sentiment does not negate the immense pain of the pandemic, especially among marginalized populations who have suffered disproportionately. However, psychologically, the pandemic has leveled the playing field. From world leaders to service workers, we have all been part of a collective trauma.

Perhaps the pandemic is paving a way for a long-awaited renaissance in the field of behavioral health care. May we uphold the wisdom that knowledge and training offers, while embracing a spirit of innovation spurred by advances in the mental health field and lessons learned from the pandemic. Ours is a life-saving opportunity.

Helen Marlo, Ph.D., is professor and chair of the graduate Clinical Psychology Department at Notre Dame de Namur University. She is a licensed clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice.

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