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The following is a statement from Paul Gionfriddo, president and CEO, Mental Health America:

“As the number of cases of COVID-19 increase, so does the associated anxiety.

“For the general public, the mental health effects of COVID-19 are as important to address as are the physical health effects. And for the one in five who already have mental health conditions – or the one in two who are at risk of developing them – we need to take personal, professional, and policy measures now to address them.

“Individuals who are beginning to experience “forced” isolation should:

  • Use your smart phone to stay connected to family and friends. Shift from texting to voice or video calling to feel more connected.
  • Keep comfortable. Do the things you already enjoy doing at home; just do more of them.
  • Practice stress relief whenever you feel anxiety building – do some deep breathing, exercise, read, dig in the garden, eat some ice cream – whatever works for you.
  • Don’t do anything you’d consider to be unhealthy for you, such as excess drinking – that will just increase your anxiety afterwards.
  • Keep looking forward. Make some plans for six months down the road.

Professionals and clinical entities who interact with both ill and well people should:

  • Screen all patients for anxiety at both sick- and well-care visits.
  • Take extra time with patients to decide if they need more intensive mental health treatment that they can be given right away – because the mental health effects, if untreated, could last for weeks or months and return unexpectedly.
  • Manage health care capacity to be able to respond to mental health crises as they arise during the next weeks and months.
  • Refer people to a variety of informational and support resources for mental health follow-up, and don’t give up if there are no clinicians immediately available to take a referral. Many MHA affiliates offer peer support services, and local advocates around the country are available to help people who need non-clinical support services as well as clinical ones.

Policy leaders should:

  • Connect constituents to information, resources, and people who can help them with their anxiety.
  • Understand that when they are contacting you, they are worried and susceptible to anxiety. Don’t just focus on minimizing concerns about your constituents’ physical health.
  • Understand that every cancellation and every disruption in routine that will occur because of control and containment efforts will likely cause more clinical anxiety that will need to be managed.
  • Put some of the dollars that have been appropriated to fight COVID-19 toward mental health. This won’t take away from our overall response to the coronavirus; it will enhance it.

“For the past several weeks, Mental Health America (MHA) has been using its unique database to monitor daily this increase in anxiety. Between the first two weeks of February and the last two weeks of February, we experienced a 19 percent increase in screening for clinical anxiety. During the first 11 days of March, there was an additional 12 percent increase in the number of anxiety screenings.

“It is important to note two things. First, the total number of anxiety screenings taken during that time was nearly 15,000. Second, the number didn’t go up because of the stock market crash – the similar crash in December 2018 had no impact on the number of anxiety screenings.

“MHA’s screening database is very large. People who come to our website screen anonymously and for free, using the same evidence-based mental health screening tools that are used by most clinicians. Nearly five million people have taken at least one mental health screen since we began the program in 2014. More than 300,000 took an anxiety screening in 2018 and 2019 alone. Most of the people who take a screen are young – the vast majority under the age of 25. It should be noted that between 42 percent of the population that typically takes an anxiety screen has severe anxiety.  During the past three+ weeks, the percentage of people screening at a “severe anxiety” level – a level that frequently requires medical attention – was just over 45 percent.

“This suggests that these additional screeners are not just “worried well,” they represent thousands of people whose lives and sense of well-being are being severely impacted by concerns about the virus. As things unfold in the coming days and weeks, MHA will continue to monitor anxiety and offering free tools to address it. We are also encouraging people to take free mental health screenings.

“We will have additional free “bonus” material on coping with the pandemic in our resiliency-oriented Mental Health Month toolkit that will be released later this month.

“The virus will likely ebb in time, and we hope that physically things will probably be back to normal in a few weeks or months – even for most of those who get COVID-19. But the mental effects will linger for those who lose loved ones and for those whose anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and other serious conditions are left untreated. We will pay a price if we don’t take all of this seriously from the start."