Forgetting mental health is a miss for the Biden COVID-19 task force

President-elect Joe Biden revealed on November 9, 2020, the members of his COVID-19 task force.  His swift announcement of the task force clarifies that addressing the health and economic problems related to COVID-19 is his immediate priority.

The president-elect has assembled an advisory team of medical experts. The team, which includes an impressive list of scientists, physicians, and public health leaders, is absent a vital voice: the mental health professional.

Although some task force members undoubtedly have experience with mental health conditions with their roles in emergency medicine and public health, a professional who specializes in the assessment and management of mental health conditions is a glaring absence from the task force.

The task force would be strengthened by including a mental health professional.  Many psychiatrists and other mental health professionals have been providing frontline care to persons with COVID-19 who have preexisting mental health conditions and those who develop psychiatric symptoms after acquiring the disease.  Many mental health professionals are providing peer support services to front-line physicians and other health care providers, hearing their stories of trauma and sadness, and helping health care workers find ways to take care of themselves to continue to address the public’s health needs during this crisis.

Many more mental health clinicians are treating patients who are dealing with behavioral health implications of the pandemic.  Studies conducted since the COVID-19 outbreak have revealed high anxiety levels among U.S. citizens, both adults and children. People are worrying about their health, the health of their loved ones, dealing with grief, experiencing isolation, and many are worrying about the economy and how they will support themselves, among other challenges. Alcohol and substance use disorders were common pre-pandemic, and this has continued. Mental health clinicians help patients and clinical providers alike, and find ways to cope during this difficult time in history.

Some research has suggested that factors during COVID-19 can contribute to increased risk for suicide during the pandemic and economic uncertainty. Many of these same risk factors for heightened anxiety, alcohol and substance use, and suicide similarly are associated with an increased risk of domestic violence. Many people are cut off from some of their regular means of support, including spiritual or religious affiliations, community connections, and family support due to the social distancing policies. There has been increased demand for mental health services in many communities; this is not expected to lessen any time soon.

Mental health professionals have been leaders in advancing telehealth technologies for patient care, both before COVID-19 and during the pandemic.  Their input is vital to understanding the challenges in care delivery during this time – from patient access to care to equitable distribution of resources to the legal and regulatory barriers to providing care.

Given the public health implications, the nation’s mental health should be a top priority to President-elect Biden and the task force. Failure to explicitly recognize the mental health symptoms and conditions faced by so many Americans ignores so many people’s experiences during this time. Although anxiety may not be as obviously related to COVID-19 as shortness of breath, it is a real health consequence of pandemic and warrants a public health approach.

Comprehensive policy interventions to reduce adverse outcomes in all health measures require attention to the behavioral health implications of the pandemic. President-elect Biden, his COVID-19 task force, other policymakers, and health care providers have a collective responsibility to recognize Americans’ behavioral health needs and increase access to behavioral health services during this time. The psychology of America necessitates that behavioral health care be recognized as a public health priority.

Jennifer Piel is a psychiatrist.

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