As COVID-19 continues to strain health systems around the country, local leaders are trying to address the mental health needs of people in their communities.
Why it matters: Unlike the physical maladies the pandemic causes, its psychological toll is often invisible, and stress tends to have a cumulative effect that may not be apparent until months after the trauma of this period.
Between the lines: Stress becomes traumatic when people face uncontrollable events that are continually changing and require constant adaptation.
- Ironically, the very mandates that officials are making to protect communities from COVID-19, such as continued social distancing, are creating new challenges and sources of stress.
"When people experience stress, we naturally want to escape it, usually by finding something that feels familiar, comforting, and routine. COVID-19 is unique because it is not only adding stress to our lives, but has also taken away predictable outlets for dealing with that stress."— Madison, Wisconsin, Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway in a recent blog post
What's happening: Mayors and local public health officials have launched initiatives to support their communities' most vulnerable residents — and are openly talking about their own struggles.
In Coral Springs, Florida, Mayor Scott Brook launched the nonprofit Mental Wellness Networking Alliance in the wake of the Parkland school shooting. It started with monthly in-person meetings with licensed counselors. When the coronavirus pandemic kept people at home, Brook shifted to weekly virtual meetings held via Zoom and Facebook Live.
In Lincoln, Nebraska, during daily press briefings, Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird shares her own family's experience with the added strain, as well her own self-care routine, including daily runs, per the Lincoln Journal Star.
In Topeka, Kansas, Mayor Michelle De La Isla instituted a "warmline" system (as opposed to a hotline) to connect volunteers with lonely residents who need to talk to someone. She's read books to children via Facebook.
The big picture: Local leaders should use their pulpits to share emotional connections with residents and create a sense of belonging, said Melissa Whitson, associate professor of psychology at the University of New Haven, who specializes in community psychology and trauma.
- "Not only will people trust that leader more, it also normalizes it for people," Whitson said. "People need to hear they're not alone."
What to watch: The extent of mental health problems is still unknown, but large-scale studies are underway.
- For example, health measurement firm Evidation just announced a nationwide study with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and Mount Sinai's Icahn School of Medicine to understand the mental health impact of the pandemic.
Go deeper: How domestic abusers tap technology — and how to stop them