Eric Johnson
Eric Johnson

THE FIRST WEEK of October was Mental Health Awareness Week. On behalf of the New Hampshire Community Behavioral Health Association, the 10 community mental health centers across the state recognize the importance of this time. We extend our gratitude to all of New Hampshire’s health care providers who are delivering services on the frontlines in the midst of the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic.

In recognition of the new challenges to service delivery during the pandemic, policymakers have responded to help the community mental health system assure timely access to care through telemedicine. The federal government and the state have expanded coverage of telemedicine and relaxed certain regulations to address barriers for people seeking services. In partnership, the 10 community mental health centers have worked closely with the Bureau of Mental Health Services to share resources and recommendations to address new issues facing the system as a result of the pandemic.

For many people, there inevitably are both long- and short-term implications and some people are at risk of new or exacerbated mental health or substance use issues. Research has shown that the psychological toll experienced by health care providers working in a long-term crisis situation can lead to distress that may last three years or more after the actual period has passed. Assuring timely entry into mental health services for front-line health care workers must be a priority.

The COVID-19 pandemic is adversely affecting the lives of families across the state and has left many parents feeling stressed, anxious and struggling to cope. It has also put the mental health of children at risk. The fall is usually an exciting time of year when children and youth look forward to seeing friends, participating in school activities and sports, and making plans for after school. This year, they are instead coping with a world that is unsettling to even the most courageous adult. For some, this unpredictable time creates constant strain that may lead to mental health issues or exacerbate existing ones.

Some children may be experiencing fear of contracting the virus or worry about death for themselves or a loved one. Grieving the unexpected loss of family members is also a shocking and trying experience. Seven months into the pandemic, our youth are living with anxiety and fear. As we adults get through another day of the COVID-19 pandemic, we must continue to support the well-being of young people through planning and delivery of services.

The pandemic has required creativity on the part of providers to assure ongoing and responsive access to mental health and substance use disorder services 24/7. Access to care in some parts of the state was already a concern prior to the pandemic, in large part due to a shortage of mental health professionals. An increased demand for these services will likely continue for the foreseeable future as illness and deaths due to the coronavirus occur.

Community mental health centers have been widely engaged in reinforcing the need for social distancing, the utilization of personal protective equipment, and other recommended safe practices in the delivery of services. It is critical that we continue to direct available resources toward addressing the increased risks of social isolation, depression, substance use, psychiatric relapse, and suicide.

Ideally, using technological tools and other new ways of providing care will translate to downstream reforms in how we deliver services for adults and children during more ordinary times. Going forward, a renewed focus on allowing providers increased flexibility and administrative relief while optimizing service delivery is essential. Hopefully, these measures will accelerate new ways of providing care.

After the pandemic is over and we’ve affirmed the effectiveness of these innovations, we should continue to work together to adopt these practices and avoid returning to business as usual. Mental health awareness is clearly needed 52 weeks of the year, especially during a pandemic.

Eric Johnson is CEO of Northern Human Services in Conway. He lives in Berlin. Northern Human Services is a non-profit that covers all of Coös, Carroll and northern Grafton Counties serving more than 4,000 people each year.