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Opinions & Observations: Using booze and baking to cope: A recipe for mental health disaster

June 4, 2020 David Woodlock

Online liquor sales spiked 400 percent in April, and this month a bill in Albany was introduced that will allow restaurants to sell take-out booze—for two years. Maybe the only thing more popular than alcohol right now is flour for all the bread and cookies we are eating.

This should not surprise us. Alcohol and carbohydrates, which release serotonin, make us feel better. But if drinking and eating are all we do to cope with the trauma of the COVID pandemic, our mental and physical health will suffer for years. The stress and despair of losing a job, struggling to pay rent, caring for an elderly or sick loved one, home schooling, and general anxiety about the future are real — and already taking a toll.

Calls to the federal mental health crisis hotline are about 900 percent greater than this time last year. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that 50 percent of respondents report that the pandemic has impacted their mental health.

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We need more than cocktails and cookies. As government continues to address the crisis and plan for the recovery, it must incorporate steps to help Americans deal with the mental health impacts of the pandemic.

Some of that is happening already. Governor Cuomo recently signed an executive order requiring insurance companies to waive co-pays for mental health services. Prior to that, he established a volunteer-staffed hotline to offer free counseling to New Yorkers in need. 

Here are five additional steps policy makers and others should take:

1) Make sure primary care visits address mental health issues. Mental health and physical health are intrinsically linked: only when physicians learn more about a patient’s mental health can they have a full understanding of their overall health.

2) Address coping through schools. Kids are stressed and worried, too. Parents can talk with them, but often kids need to hear from someone else, like a trusted teacher or guidance counselor. School staff can fill that role now through online chats and activities.

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3) As districts plan for reopening, they should incorporate mandatory mental health screenings for each student. Schools can then provide coping skills programs; and students whose assessments deem them to be at high risk should be connected to behavioral health providers without delay.

4) Develop public service announcements about coping. Research has shown that PSAs, as part of a comprehensive health campaign, are effective at altering behaviors. There are plenty of PSAs in regular rotation about washing hands and keeping physical distance. We need PSAs that address coping, and they need to come from the government or the nonprofit sector so there is no perception of ulterior motives. They should speak to kids and adults, singles and families, about strategies to get through this crisis.

5) Change the public health messaging to encourage physical distance, not social isolation. Social isolation is incredibly unhealthy. We should encourage people to maintain and seek out social connections while remaining physically distant.

The stress on people and families, and the despair they feel, is likely to last long into the future. And while we want to keep the beverage and baking industries strong, we should do more to ensure they offer a complement to our daily lives, not a crutch on which we lean during disasters. Helping people deal with distress and make healthy choices is imperative to preventing much greater problems down the road.

David Woodlock is president and CEO of the Institute for Community Living. He is a former deputy commissioner at the New York State Office of Mental Health.


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