By Jonathan Springston, Editor, Relias Media

Between healthcare providers risking their well-being to battle a dangerous virus and millions of other Americans physically distancing for their own safety, Mental Health Month 2020 may be the most crucial observance yet.

More than 40 million people in the United States live with a mental health condition. The COVID-19 outbreak has chased most Americans inside their homes and away from each other. Conversely, thousands of nurses, physicians, and other healthcare professionals are working around the clock treating a surge of patients who have contracted the virus. And if the non-stop workload was not bad enough, many of these workers may be self-isolating to protect their loved ones.

“Especially during this time of isolation, uncertainty, and tragedy, it is vital that no one feels alone in their mental health journey,” Daniel H. Gillison, Jr., CEO of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), said in a statement. “The COVID-19 crisis not only shines a spotlight on our need for social connectedness, but also our need for real mental health resources.”

Throughout May, NAMI says it will use its “You Are Not Alone” campaign to provide not only general education about mental health, but extra resources to help Americans cope with the challenges of social isolation.

As part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act signed into law on March 31, lawmakers gave the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) $450 million for COVID-19 relief. The National Council for Behavioral Health (NCBH) notes $250 million of that total was earmarked directly for community behavioral health organizations.

On April 27, SAMHSA announced 166 awards for Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinic (CCBHC) expansion grants. According to NCBH, this grant funding went only to those organizations that applied for CCBHC grants before the COVID-19 crisis began. In early April, NCBH asked SAMHSA to allocate these funds much wider.

“Make no mistake: we believe CCBHCs are a valuable model for the future of behavioral health,” NCBH President and CEO Chuck Ingoglia said in a statement. “But given the relatively limited number of CCBHCs operating today, we must allocate relief funds more broadly. The recent grant announcement highlights the need for urgent congressional action to provide $38.5 billion infusion of emergency funds for behavioral health organizations to ensure that all providers have the resources necessary to meet the immediate challenges.”

The upcoming June issue of Hospital Peer Review includes a long feature on the need to provide care for caregivers. Healthcare burnout and suicide risk already were major issues, and the COVID-19 outbreak has only exacerbated these problems. Taking short breaks, scheduling recovery time, and confiding in trustworthy colleagues are ways to cope with stress in the short term.

“In unprecedented times, there is an unprecedented opportunity for greatness,” Jarrett Jedlicka, vice president and principal for healthcare with Ceridian, a company in Minneapolis that provides human capital management, told Hospital Peer Review. “People are rising to the challenge, but we also need to think about the structural changes that are needed to support our caregivers. To deliver top quality care, our caregivers need to receive top quality support.”

Sadly, long-term changes likely will be needed because the healthcare industry is only beginning to understand the havoc COVID-19 has wrought on mental health.

“I’m sure there will be cases of post-COVID post-traumatic stress syndrome. We will have a whole generation of doctors and nurses of all ages who will have stress that will have to be addressed on the other side of this,” M. Bridget Duffy, MD, chief medical officer of Vocera Communications in San Jose, CA, which provides communication services to healthcare organizations, told Hospital Peer Review. “This will be one of the most important topics that we have to address after this. The virus and the experience of those who fought it may frighten people from entering these professions. We will have to make changes to assure the physical and mental well-being of our healthcare workforce.”