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In America, and much of the developed world, we’re finally starting to turn a corner on this pandemic. Covid-19 cases are down. Vaccinations are up. Emergency rooms are finally starting to fill up with ordinary accidents again. Many people are cautiously starting to resume something like normal life.
But the pandemic has left many people with health problems that urgently need attention — and those problems encompass both routine physical care and new mental health challenges. New evidence shows that one in five Covid survivors is diagnosed with a mental health issue within three months of their diagnosis. This means that mental health struggles are about twice as common among Covid survivors as in the general population.
Anxiety and insomnia are two of the most common diagnoses. It’s hardly surprising, as some of these survivors came perilously close to death. Others may have lost family members or friends to the disease. And some still struggle with lingering symptoms like loss of taste or smell or, worst of all, “long-haul Covid.” It’s no wonder that they find themselves struggling.
Mental Health Post-Covid Impacts Everyone
These trends aren’t confined to just Covid survivors, either. Research has also shown that the stress of living through the pandemic has greatly increased the number of people, particularly young people, who are struggling with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Millions of people have lost jobs or suffered a decline in income, putting them at greater risk of mental illness. Surveys also indicate that substance use problems are on the rise.
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Access to mental health care is already a huge problem in this country. In fact, the majority of adults with mental illnesses don’t get any treatment. Some are uninsured or underinsured. Others live in rural areas where therapists aren’t as concentrated as in urban centers or are coping with additional health problems that make it difficult to access treatment. And unfortunately, stigma still keeps many people from seeking treatment for mental health problems or substance use.
If millions of more people need help today — whether it’s because they’ve survived Covid and are struggling in the aftermath, they lost their job or simply struggled with social isolation — our health care system may strain to keep up with the need.
Elective Surgeries, Mental Health And Opioid/Benzos
And that’s not the only issue doctors will be dealing with over the coming months. Millions of people had to postpone elective surgeries due to the coronavirus pandemic. These postponed surgeries were not trivial. In medical terms, an “elective” surgery is simply any surgery that can be scheduled rather than an emergency-level problem. Postponed surgeries included serious issues like knee or shoulder replacements. Many of these patients have been coping with significant and chronic pain as they’ve waited for the treatment they need. They’ve also been coping with the emotional uncertainty of not knowing when they’ll be able to get their treatment or how much more severe their conditions could become while they wait.
The vast majority of people awaiting surgeries like these are prescribed opioids to cope with the pain caused by their conditions. Some will also have been prescribed benzodiazepines for anxiety or insomnia. Those drugs do serve a vital purpose, helping patients deal with pain before urgently needed treatment. But those same medications aren’t appropriate for longer-term use. People who use opioids before surgery are more likely to continue using these drugs after surgery.
And benzodiazepines come with their own risks of chemical dependence and addiction. Now, as these surgeries are finally getting scheduled, these patients are at a crucial inflection point. Without help dealing with pain, stress, anxiety and depression, they might conceivably continue using opioids or benzodiazepines for years. With targeted help, however, they could safely taper their use of medications, manage their pain more effectively and improve their quality of life.
Telehealth And Tech Tools Can Help Us Navigate The Post-Pandemic Era
Doctors and mental health providers have turned to tech tools like telehealth to help maintain continuity of care with their patients through this pandemic. Given the level of need out there post-pandemic, providers must continue to use tech tools to keep up with the demand. Telehealth and other tech tools can help patients who live in rural areas, or who simply live far from the specialist help they need, access urgently needed care. AI-based tools can help providers monitor patients in between appointments, spotting problems before they become severe. Technology will have an important role to play in ensuring that every patient who needs care can access it.
In one way or another, this pandemic has touched almost every household in this country (and around the world). Some people have lost income. Others have been isolated. Some have been kept waiting for urgently needed treatments. Others have found themselves dealing with new mental health struggles — particularly those who have survived a serious case of Covid-19 or lost a loved one to the virus.
The level of need in our communities is enormous. We can’t allow anyone to slip through the cracks. We need to use every tool at our disposal to ensure that everyone gets the care they need.