Guest columns share an author’s personal perspective.
Quite understandably, much of the current discourse surrounding the COVID-19 crisis pertains to the physical health implications of the virus. Yet amid the rise of quarantine restrictions and social distancing practices, severe gaps in mental health care and support systems also represent a substantial concern.
Just the mere thought of coronavirus can be anxiety-provoking for a person without an existing mental health diagnosis. For people with mental illness, the stress and fear associated with a rapidly spreading pandemic is exponentially more precarious, and can exacerbate an existing mental health or substance use problem.
Long before the coronavirus outbreak, governments and other institutions were largely failing to protect at-risk individuals from a mental health perspective. Police officers and firefighters — whose PTSD and depression rates are as much as five times higher than the rates within the civilian population — are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty.
The medical staffs working around the clock to treat patients with COVID-19, as well as a ‘regular’ patient base, are also being put under greater stress and anxiety while performing their duties as they try to balance treatment and not catching the virus or passing it on.
At the same time, mental health disabilities are increasingly pervasive on college campuses. The American College Health Association found in 2018 that 40% of undergraduates had felt so depressed within the previous 12 months that it was difficult for them to function, while more than 10% of undergraduates had seriously considered suicide during the same period.
Additionally, four of the eight Ivy League schools prohibit students from visiting campus while they are on leave. This means that students who are taking time away from the academic demands in order to focus on their own well-being become socially isolated, as they are banned from coming to campus to share a meal with friends.
Now, as schools shut down for the remainder of the semester and social distancing measures are implemented nationwide in order to curb the spread of coronavirus, even the imperfect safe haven of a college campus community is no longer available to students with mental health conditions. International students, many of whom cannot return home due to travel restrictions, are even more isolated at this time. With this country’s health care system bracing for the strain of a novel pandemic, who will step in to care for these vulnerable individuals?
Philanthropy must answer the call by catalyzing the discussion, increasing resources, and destigmatizing the mental health conversation. Along these lines, the Newton and Boston-based Ruderman Family Foundation has a proven infrastructure already in place.
The foundation partnered with This Is My Brave, an organization that has speakers tell their stories of dealing with their mental health in a storytelling format, to present “This Is My Brave College Edition.” The performances featured nine college students from Boston campuses who performed their stories at Lesley University, Harvard University, Northeastern University and Tufts University this past fall, and performed this spring at Boston University, Brandeis University and at the Ivy League Medical Conference at Harvard Medical School.
We also partner with BRYT: Bridge for Resilient Youth in Transition, a program providing assistance for students to come back to school after an absence for treatment of a mental health diagnosis. Students re-entering school can feel overwhelmed, and this program helps to alleviate some of that apprehension. Each BRYT program approaches staffing, space, and services with a consistent vision, while customizing the specifics for each school population and for each student. This rapidly expanding program will undoubtedly be in greater demand when students are allowed to assimilate back on campus.
Raising awareness and making a statement on a more national scale, we honored decorated swimmer Michael Phelps with the 2018 Morton E. Ruderman Award in Inclusion for his open discussion of his struggle with depression and anxiety.
Currently, our organization is in the process of assessing how to specifically mobilize our resources on mental health care and support in response to COVID-19. In a world increasingly defined by isolation, we will not leave this vulnerable population behind.
— Sharon Shapiro
Sharon Shapiro is a trustee and community liaison for the Newton-based Ruderman Family Foundation. She works to support teens and college-age students with mental health by raising awareness and organizing programming with local institutions.