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Has COVID-19 changed our perspectives on mental illness?

Google “mental health” and “COVID-19” and you’ll get an endless list of search results detailing how the virus has negatively affected the world’s mental well-being.

Headlines like “CDC study sheds new light on mental health crisis linked to coronavirus pandemic” from CNN, “Mental Health and Coping During COVID-19” from the CDC, and numerous others make visual the impact this virus has had on people’s mental health and the increasing numbers who are experiencing depression, anxiety, and related challenges firsthand due to the pandemic.

While there’s plenty of bad news associated with this growth -- as well as a need for better access to treatment and more equitable health insurance coverage -- there may also be a silver lining hidden in these numbers.

Could the world’s increasing experience of mental health problems lead to a shift in thinking about how we perceive mental illness and how people with mental health problems are treated?

Could COVID-19 lead to an end to stigma for those with mental illness?

If so, it might just be the one good thing to come out of the virus scare and all of 2020.

Even before the virus hit there was a growing willingness among people to talk about mental health in new ways. Individuals, including many celebrities, were telling their personal stories in public and conversations on topics that had once been taboo, like suicide, were becoming more common. Blogs on mental health exploded, along with published memoirs, personal narratives and tips for supporting your own mental well-being.

The virus has in many ways pushed these conversations forward even further.

In forcing people to become better aware of their own mental well-being and the impact that external circumstances, like the pandemic, has on it, the virus scare has created the potential for all of us to begin to see mental health through a new lens, perhaps the same lens we use to view physical health.

When you fall and break your arm, you receive treatment for it and you heal. Similarly, when life events deliver an emotional “fall,” you should also receive treatment and heal.

Imagine telling someone with a broken arm that it was something wrong with who they are that led to the injury. Or, worse, denying treatment for the break altogether and then labeling the individual as unemployable, or inadequate in some essential way.

These are some of the affects that stigma and bad policies have on those with mental illness.

Let’s end the difference now. With the new experience that COVID-19 has brought us, let’s shift our thoughts and words around mental illness. Let’s increase advocacy, fighting for changes to medical insurance reimbursements for mental vs. physical health problems and let’s push for better access to treatment.

Let’s take advantage of this moment. COVID-19 is opening the door. Hopefully, we will take the necessary steps to walk through it.

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