By Anthony Acampora
Back in the 1960s and 1970s, the word “deinstitutionalization” became a familiar term in America’s psychiatric world as it was the government’s initiative to reduce the nation’s state psychiatric hospital population. The idea was to remove patients from inhumane conditions. What we ended up with, in many respects, was something even worse. Those with severe mental illnesses poured out into the streets, prisons, and jails around the country. These areas became the new psychiatric hospitals. The mentally ill, who often have difficulty following instructions or commands, usually found themselves in jails where the environment was (and still is) flowing with a constant stream of commands. Security takes precedence over everything else. The individuals suffering from mental illnesses were (and still are) in jail for minor offenses such as trespassing, shoplifting, or loitering only to be caught up in the criminal justice system for months or even years as a result of additional, non-compliant infractions while incarcerated.
If there was ever something that would have an even more detrimental impact on those suffering from mental health disorders than the prison system, it would have to be the coronavirus. As this horrendous virus ravages through countries and neighborhoods throughout the world, destroying and taking the lives of those in its path, the new familiar terms are now ventilators, PPE’s, and social distancing. Now, with the intense focus on the coronavirus, those who drop to an even lower rung on the social ladder are the severely mentally ill and those with mental health disorders. While key in the mitigation process, the guidelines to combat this monster issued by the Coronavirus Taskforce and CDC are, in most cases, the exact opposite of what health professionals recommend as being beneficial for those with mental health issues. While isolating and avoiding groups are staples for minimizing exposure to the virus, they are a recipe for increased anxiety and deepening depression.
Constant fear and worry for one’s own health and family members, as well as the loss of employment and new-found financial issues, are not good for anyone, but for those with pre-existing mental health issues, they can be downright devastating. Global uncertainty, interrupted treatment regimens, and diminished interaction with friends and family compound the mental instability of those who suffer from mental health disorders. Consider this alarming statistic from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): an 891% increase in call volume to the “Disaster Distress Helpline” for March 2020 compared to calls in March of last year.
The mentally ill often become very attached to their therapist or counselor, and routines play an important role in their peace of mind. In many cases, a therapist is all the patient has, so when that connection is disrupted, the stability of that individual is compromised. Just to clarify, this is in no way aimed toward minimizing the pandemic or the death and destruction it is causing. Yes, we have a global pandemic, but there are also many people suffering from mental illness who are not getting adequate treatment. They are once again sent to the back of the line. With this outbreak, however, that line is going to be growing at a level we have never before experienced. Regrettably, many may not make it through this line.
As we focus on this global pandemic lets take a look at how the environment impacts mental health. In an October 2019, UN Environment Programme article, it was noted that “urbanization can increase isolation from nature, which, in turn, prevents people from harnessing the mental health benefits of being surrounded by natural environments. It also creates risky exposure to the type of air pollution that primarily affects mental health.”
Many mental health professionals will identify having a cluttered house or apartment will negatively impact some people’s mental health. If that’s the case, why wouldn’t the environment also have potentially negative ramifications to someone’s mental health? We must begin to take into consideration outside hazards impacting those who suffer from mental health issues, not just what’s going on inside someone’s head.
As you may be aware, suicide rates increase during periods of economic downturn. The suicide rate rose to a record high of 21.9 per 100,000 people in 1932 in the depths of the Great Depression. The difference here is not just the economy that has been decimated and jobs lost but also the tremendous fear of contracting this deadly virus as we try to navigate our way through each day. For someone dealing with paranoia or anxiety, this type of atmosphere can push them over the edge. We focused a lot on the problem. Let’s shift gears to some potential solutions.
Let’s look at the area of Faith as it relates to Mental Illness. Source: McLean Hospital, Dr. David Rosmarin is the Director of Mental Health and Spirituality at McLean Hospital. He is also a psychology professor at Harvard. McLean Hospital is the #1 ranked psychiatric hospital for adults in the country by Helio Psychiatry. Dr. Rosmarin was on our radio show on June 15, 2018. Of the top ten psychiatric hospitals in the county, McLean is the only psychiatric hospital that offers a Faith /Spirituality program. Dr. Rosmarin and colleagues conducted a study on the significance of spirituality as it relates to mental illness. The study indicated that 58.2 % of patients being admitted to McLean wanted to have a spirituality/faith program in their treatment plan. In an April 25, 2013 article in Science Daily News, a Mclean study concluded, “Belief in God is associated with improved treatment outcomes in psychiatric care.”
A logical question that may come to mind is if more than half of patients entering a psychiatric hospital are requesting faith programming and recent studies are determining it is effective, why do we only see one of the top psychiatric hospitals employing faith programming? Perhaps it’s due to the increased politically-correct environment or maybe leadership is reluctant to implement a different treatment approach. Whatever the rationalizing may be, the reality is: faith plays an enormous role in many people’s lives. If it can be a source of hope and healing for those who are suffering, we should use it.
So, how can we make sense out of something so senseless as an invisible enemy called COVID-19? When we look closely– past the anxiety, fear, uncertainty, tremendous loss of life, and grief, we see that adversaries are working together toward a common goal. We begin to understand who the true heroes are in our society: doctors, nurses, law enforcement, firemen, healthcare providers, and paramedics, to name a few. For many people, the words faith and hope, which may have been used as punchlines, begin to take on far-deeper meaning. Loving our neighbor no longer seems like such a difficult chore but rather something we truly feel led to do.
So, how can we make a difference in the lives of those impacted by this vicious virus, especially those who are already suffering from mental health disorders? We must stop shaming people who are tormented through no fault of their own. People with mental illness can and will recover with proper treatment and compassion. They deserve the chance to receive legitimate care; they deserve a fighting chance to overcome or, at the very least, experience relief from this horrible illness. A word of encouragement can also go a long way, especially when someone is in desperate need of hope. A little light in the darkness can make a huge difference! Let’s be that light in the darkness for those who are suffering from mental illness.
May God bless and protect you and your family during these difficult times. May the peace of God which surpasses understanding be poured over the families and loved ones of those lost to COVID-19.
Anthony Acampora is the Faith Program Director & Chaplain at Banyan Treatment Centers. He is a published author, writer, speaker, and graduate of Vision International University, where he earned a Master’s degree in Ministry. Anthony received an Advanced Diploma in Biblical Studies from the Int’l School of Ministry. He is a former board member of the Henderson Behavioral Health, FACT, and the National Alliance Mental Illness, Broward County. In 2019, Anthony was selected “Professional of the Year” by Broward National Recovery Month Organization. In 2018, he was selected as Global Goodwill Ambassador representing the USA. In 2015, he received the “Volunteer Recognition Award” from National Alliance Mental Illness, Broward County. In 2014 – Selected “Public Citizen of the Year by National Association of Social Workers, Broward County. He is the host of the Faith in Recovery Show.