Last year, we posted an article titled “Mental Illness in America: How Capitalism is Feeding Our Mental Health Crisis“. But that was in 2019, when things were still normal.
Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic having changed life as we know it over the past six months, it’s time to re-examine the ways that capitalism – defined by treating profits over people – continues to make the COVID-19 crisis worse at every level.
Both physical and mental health
It is no secret that the isolation that this pandemic has created has taken a huge toll on our mental health. Last week, the CDC published their report, “Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation During the COVID-19 Pandemic“, which found that 40% of Americans are struggling to find ways to cope with this crisis.
Of course, it is not only isolation that is exacerbating an already existing mental health crisis. Many have lost beloved friends and family members; even those who have not are left to process the staggering number of lives lost to this virus. As these numbers continue to grow, it is difficult for some of us to shake the fear that we may be next, particularly if we are at risk.
This is a kind of national trauma which the United States does not know how to handle. For the 70% of American adults who have already experienced trauma in their lives (yes, you read that right), this traumatic event may be a reminder of other traumas – in effect leading to re-traumatization.
(Note: if you have experienced a traumatic event and are finding this pandemic especially difficult to cope with for reasons you can’t explain, this may be a factor, and you are not alone.)
With the shutdowns that many states have put into effect to respond to this crisis, and the loss of profit to some industries, over twenty million people lost their jobs in a period of three months.
Losing a job is a mental health crisis in and of itself. One 2010 study found that unemployed young people (aged 18-25) were three times as likely to exhibit symptoms of depression as their employed peers. Experiencing a job loss may lead to problems with one’s identity, not to mention the social stigma against the unemployed.
But there are several other mental health problems associated with job loss. Economic insecurity can wreak havoc on our mental health; struggling every month to figure out how to pay our bills and put food on the table is an extremely stressful way of life that entirely too many Americans understand. And this economic insecurity does not need to come from job loss directly, but can come from even the fear of job loss, which many people are experiencing given the IWF’s April report that our current economy is at its lowest point since the Great Depression.
Loss of healthcare
Healthcare in the United States is almost always tied to our jobs – which means that unprecedented job loss comes with an unprecedented health insurance crisis. The Kaiser Family Foundation has estimated that of the 26.8 million people expected to lose the health insurance that was tied to their jobs, 5.7 million will not be eligible for coverage under the Affordable Care Act.
This leaves them with two options: pay for their own health insurance, including COBRA coverage (which many will not be able to afford, having just lost their jobs); or remain uninsured during what may end up being the worst physical and mental health crisis this country has ever seen.
FAIR Health, Inc. reports that 15 to 20 percent of those who get COVID may require hospitalization, and that “the average charge per COVID-19 patient requiring a hospital stay [is] $73,300.” A person without insurance who survives their hospitalization may never be able to repay that debt in their lifetime, particularly given that the average American already has $38,000 in personal debts (not including mortgages).
And since this is a widely traumatic event, we must also remember that the total cost of treatment for PTSD can be as much as $10,000 over four years. Even before this pandemic, half of Americans with mental illnesses could not afford treatment; this number will only increase in the coming months and years as our numbers of unemployed and uninsured (or under-employed and under-insured) Americans skyrocket.
This is, quite simply, a health crisis that America cannot afford. Meanwhile, health insurance companies have made billions of dollars in profits since the pandemic began.
Our most vulnerable
All of these problems only compound for the most vulnerable people in our society.
One of the reasons why nursing homes come with an increased risk of COVID is their congregate nature – something shared by the over 2 million Americans in prison. It is also shared by the Americans currently experiencing homelessness; in an Associated Press report, one homeless individual says that population has been “ignored.”
And of course, the risk for serious illness is also higher among certain members of the disabled community, including those who are immunocompromised and those with prior respiratory problems. Many disability advocates are angry that changes such as remote work, which might have helped thousands of people work in the past, are now being made readily available where it was previously denied.
Insufficient government assistance
Many Americans received a stimulus check earlier this year under the CARES Act. However, this one-time check has proven insufficient to meet the needs of many workers struggling to pay their rent. At this point, we are unsure whether Congress will reach a deal on a second stimulus check.
Unemployment assistance has been inaccessible to many North Carolinians due to an unsustainable increase in unemployment requests; its unmanageable delays led to a ProPublica report calling North Carolina “the worst state to be unemployed.” Meanwhile, North Carolina’s moratorium on evictions expired in June.
Many Americans are left comparing our financial relief to that of other countries, some of which are offering monthly payments to citizens below a certain income.
What can we do?
In their report, the CDC reaches the following conclusion: “The public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic should increase intervention and prevention efforts to address associated mental health conditions.”
It is up to our government to provide us with the financial assistance that we need to avoid an economic disaster that may only exacerbate the physical and mental health problems that have increased with COVID-19.
The National Council for Behavioral Health has created an easy, two-minute process for you to contact your legislators and ask for emergency mental health funding in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The relief packages currently under debate in Congress will also be a crucial step in providing relief for some of our collective financial anxieties. However, they are just one step in the national conversations we are all having about humans’ rights to medical care, housing, and food security.
On an individual level, we need to continue to be there for each other.
- Check in with loved ones, either virtually or through safe, socially distant get-togethers. Empathy and compassion are important tools for managing the collective trauma we are all experiencing.
- It is also imperative that we continue to follow safety guidelines including sanitation, masks, and social distancing.
- Consider looking into mutual aid projects in your local community to see how you can help those around you.
Finally, reach out if you’re feeling overwhelmed. You are not alone, and support is out there.