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Experts say isolation can negatively impact mental health, but not everyone has access to services they may need. // Illustration by Ella Banken

By Georgia Costa

When the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order is no longer enforced, the demand for mental health assistance is predicted to surge, meeting an insufficient supply of therapists, said Mahbub Hossain, a researcher at Texas A&M University.

“There is no health system in this world that is prepared to address the psychological pandemic alongside COVID-19,” Hossain said.

Hossain, who works in the Department of Health Promotion and Community Health Service, conducts research on global mental health and how it fluctuates throughout different populations. 

Accessibility to mental health services will be a critical problem, Hossain said.

“Many people lack access to services,” Hossain said. “The financing is a big problem, as well as a lot of mental health professionals not being adequately trained.” 

The lack of accessibility impacts people with low socioeconomic status the most, Hossain said. 

“Racial and ethnic minorities who experience marginalization and stigmatization do not have enough access to health care,” Hossain said. “Everything is related to mental health, it should be prioritized.”

Pippa Breakspear, a Bellingham drug and alcohol counselor, said there is a shortage of psychiatrists and practitioners in the city.

“There will be a very high need and long wait times for psychiatrists and medication,” Breakspear said. “We’re going to need a ton of drug and alcohol treatment, as well as mental health services to meet the high demand. I just hope there is funding for that.”

According to Newsweek, alcohol sales are up by 55%.

Breakspear mentioned that based on speaking to her clients and other counselors, many of the self-isolated population are day drinking, which quickly entails addiction according to Breakspear. 

“This event is traumatizing people,” Breakspear said. “All addicts are victims of trauma, and trauma is what drives addiction.”

Breakspear believes that in adjusting to a “quarantine-free” lifestyle, people will suffer most with addiction and being overwhelmed from financial and emotional burdens.

“All the turmoil right now is going to increase,” Breakspear said. “The inability for people to see the future is very hard on the human spirit.”

A vast amount of people don’t have insurance to cover regular counseling, Breakspear said. 

“It’s difficult to gain access to counseling when you don’t have any money,” Breakspear said. “[The pandemic] has just turned the volume up.”

Services to accommodate uninsured people of low-income in Bellingham include Unity Care and Catholic Community Services, which both accept Medicaid and Medicare, Breakspear said.

“Uninsured minorities are already suffering stressors and are more susceptible to mental illness because of the things they face every day,” Hossain said. “Mental health should be prioritized in COVID-19 policy making.”

In efforts to make mental health services more accessible to the uninsured, telemental health services could be used to refer people to institutional care, Hossain said.

“We are going to create a universal mental health impact if we have telemedicine connected with institutional care,” Hossain said.

Western first-year Jaiya Peaks participated in a women’s therapy group at Western’s Counseling Center before campus was shut down in the weeks of winter quarter. 

“I constantly feel like I need my therapist,” Peaks said. “I’m going back [to therapy] when school starts up again. I miss the guidance, the structure and not being a burden to my peers with my emotions.”

The psychological burden will be much greater, Hossain said. He said it is crucial that existing infrastructure is used in order to make sure that health care providers are mentally stable in order to treat the high demand of patients.

“I doubt there is going to be enough of us,” said Breakspear, who hopes therapists will define boundaries and take care of themselves.

Every single demographic is vulnerable to the mental health impacts from the virus, Hossain said.

“[Some of] those who didn’t have pre-existing mental illness are isolated and experiencing psychosocial and familial problems,” Hossain said. “These things are going to affect everyone's mental health and the outcomes will vary.”

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