As a society, we are simply exhausted

Here are 4 steps to meet our emotional needs

AS A HOSPITAL CEO, I can see the far-reaching effects of the pandemic on the emotional well-being of a community.

I see it in the children and adults who visit our emergency department at a time of personal crisis, when they feel they can no longer cope.  I see it in our local civic and business leaders, who get burned out as they struggle to develop coherent policies to adapt to a virus that is ever-changing.  I see it in the faces of neighbors and friends – faces that project warmth and caring but also the strain of living through the unknowns of a seemingly endless pandemic.

And, yes, I even see it in myself, as an administrator, who must always be hyper-vigilant that our community hospital will be ready for the next surge.

As a society, we are simply exhausted.  We have lived our lives over the last 18 months in a state of high alert – save those few weeks in early summer when we thought we had this thing beat.  That is taking a toll on all of us, ranging from mild anxiety to those with post-traumatic stress disorder.  The prevalence of depression during the pandemic has been found to be three times higher than it was before the pandemic, according to a Journal of the American Medical Association study.

It is imperative that we get on top of this and that we put the infrastructure in place to ensure that people’s emotional needs are being met.  Here are four things that our policy makers, health care system, and the broader society can do to make sure this happens:

Take care of the children. Our kids are struggling to adapt after this major disruption. A March 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey undertaken by our hospital showed that 15 percent of the surveyed high school students self-injured on purpose and 30 percent “felt so sad or hopeless.”  Compounding this situation is the fact that our behavioral health system for children was stressed long before the pandemic.  Ask any parent who has ever struggled to find a therapist that accepts their insurance or those who have been pained by the long waits to get their children into an inpatient or residential program.  We need more behavioral health capacity, but particularly for teens.

Let’s work toward true parity. If you walk into a hospital with a bad knee or hip, your diagnosis will likely be relatively straightforward as will your treatment.  If you need medication, it will be prescribed and your care will be monitored.  If surgery is needed, it will be scheduled.  If you walk into that same hospital with a behavioral health need, the path may be more complicated. That is because we have not yet achieved true parity between physical and mental health.  The latter is the subject of stigma, even though one in four adults has a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.  Coverage is narrower as is the network of available providers.  Policy makers and health plans must work harder at achieving parity and society must embrace the concept.

Resolve to end the opioid crisis once and for all.  The opioid epidemic has gotten worse during the pandemic.  We lose far too many people – including many young people whose promising futures are cut short – due to opioid addiction.  We should not accept overdose deaths as inevitable. It is important to remember that addiction is treatable; in fact, most patients benefit from treatment.  Our hospital recently opened a medication assisted treatment program and we see its success getting people back to enjoying life, to working, and restoring relationships.  Addiction is not – and should not be thought of as – a death sentence

Address behavioral healthcare workforce shortages. There is a chronic shortage of mental health clinicians and many refuse to participate in health plans due to low reimbursement and significant red tape.  The low rate of payment, in particular, means that many mental health clinics are financially unsustainable.  In essence, we have two behavioral health systems in our nation: One for wealthy people who can privately pay for care and the other – marked by waits for care and limited coverage – for those who must rely on health insurance, public or private.  It is imperative that we reduce the hurdles that prevent patients from getting care.

Meet the Author

Christine Schuster

President and CEO, Emerson Hospital
As a society, we are hurting, and there is no panacea.  We can, however, make practical changes today that will improve the state of our behavioral health system.  This will help ensure that people can get on with their lives once the pandemic has eased up.

Christine Schuster is president & CEO of Emerson Hospital in Concord.