Mental Health Crisis, Untreated Illnesses Take Toll as Shutdowns Linger

May 21, 2020 Updated: June 1, 2020

WASHINGTON—A new public health crisis has emerged amid the pandemic, although no models have been created yet to measure its potential impact.

The implications of shutdown policies haven’t been discussed with nearly the same vigor as the risks related directly to the CCP virus (commonly known as the novel coronavirus)—despite that these policies may well end up causing more deaths than the virus itself.

Research shows a clear link between the effects of a quarantine and stay-at-home practices on mental health, according to Dr. Elinore McCance-Katz, assistant secretary for mental health and substance abuse at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

“The preservation of Americans’ health and the health of our citizens cannot be measured by only one metric. Virus containment cannot be our only goal,” McCance-Katz said during a Cabinet meeting on May 19. She is a psychiatrist and holds a doctorate in infectious disease epidemiology.

“We know that the longer the duration of these orders, the greater the intensity of the mental health problems experienced. We also know that these symptoms persist for years to come, even once quarantine is lifted.

“To put all of this in perspective, I believe it is important to point out that, pre-pandemic, we lose 120,000 lives a year to drug overdose and suicide. How many more lives are we willing to sacrifice in the name of containing the virus?”

The number of calls to SAMHSA’s Disaster Distress Helpline increased 1,000 percent for the month of April, compared to April 2019. SAMHSA was unable to provide the number of calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline after multple requests.

“As a psychiatrist, I would argue that a life lost to suicide is just as important as a life lost to coronavirus,” McCance-Katz said. “I ask that you take into account whole health, not just one narrow aspect of physical health.”

Epoch Times Photo
Dr. Elinore McCance-Katz, assistant secretary for mental health and substance abuse at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, during a cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington on May 19, 2020. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

More than 90,000 people have died from COVID-19 as of May 20, according to the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC).

However, some studies estimate the public health effects of the shutdown policies might end up fueling a higher death toll than the virus.

An analysis by the Well Being Trust reveals a possible 75,000 additional “deaths of despair” could occur because the shutdown measures, including from suicide and drug and alcohol abuse over the next several years.

The aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis saw an increase of almost 5,000 suicide deaths, according to a 2014 study published by lead author Aaron Reeves of Oxford University.

Reeves told Reuters in April that “there’s a good chance we could see twice as many suicides over the next 24 months than we saw during the early part of the last recession.” That would mean 20,000 additional suicide deaths in the United States over the next two years.

More than 80,000 diagnoses of five common cancers are projected to be missed or delayed during the three-month period of early March to early June, according to the IQVIA Institute for Human Data Science. Delays in diagnosis can result in poorer prognoses and fewer treatment options.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar said mammograms are down 87 percent and colonoscopies are down 90 percent.

“We could already have 300,000 or more undiagnosed cancer cases as a result of this crisis,” Azar said on May 19.

People may also be avoiding critical care in hospitals due to fears of the pandemic. A report by the Epic Health Research Network shows that hospital emergency rooms have seen a 45 percent decrease in patients experiencing heart attacks since the March 13 national emergency was announced. ER visits for strokes are down 38 percent over the same time, the May 14 report shows.

“There are growing concerns that patients with urgent conditions are not seeking the care they need, for fear of exposure to COVID-19,” the report stated, but was clarified to indicate that it’s not yet certain whether the drop in numbers is due to fear or whether fewer people are experiencing heart attacks and strokes.

Sheriffs Fielding Mental Health Calls

Sheriff’s offices have also received an unprecedented increase in mental health-related calls since the nationwide shutdown began in mid-March.

“Crimes of desperation” and calls related to mental health have increased significantly nationwide, said Dave Mahoney, the incoming president of the National Sheriffs’ Association and sheriff of Dane County, Wisconsin.

“Not only suicide, but thoughts of hopelessness and not getting out from under the challenges that they have—loss of jobs and incomes and businesses. Just in the families that I’ve communicated with, the level of desperation is extremely high,” Mahoney said.

The Congressional Budget Office has forecast a 38 percent decline in GDP in the second quarter, with 26 million fewer people employed than in the fourth quarter of 2019.

Mahoney’s office is fielding approximately double the calls for service related to mental health since the shutdown measures were put in place.

“I’ve been in law enforcement for 41 years and sheriff for 14 years, and of all the challenges I’ve faced, I’ve never faced anything like the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.

In Montgomery County, Ohio, the sheriff’s office has seen a 117 percent increase in mental health calls for service.

The callouts include those in which someone is suffering a mental health breakdown, Sheriff Rob Streck said on May 15.

“It would be a social service calling us and asking us to ‘pink slip’ someone because they’re having issues with them. [Or] it would be an attempt or a suicide. And that’s probably not even the real numbers because you also get the disorderlies and things like that, that never get coded as mental health.”

A “pink slip” is the authority given to deputies to involuntarily commit someone to a mental health facility for 72 hours. However, in reality, it doesn’t work like that, because mental health beds are so limited, Streck explained in a previous interview. “Literally, a pink slip nowadays is good for about two to four hours,” he said.

“We’ve never seen an increase like this. I mean, obviously, this is very stressful and a trying time for people who have a strong mental health. So when you add all this into somebody who is already suffering, it just multiplies greatly.”

Epoch Times Photo
Montgomery County Sheriff Rob Streck in his office in Dayton, Ohio, on Oct. 30, 2019. (Charlotte Cuthbertson/The Epoch Times)

Domestic Violence

Mahoney said domestic violence calls have increased on a national level. His department in Dane County has seen a 150 percent increase in reports during the shutdown.

“Maybe it’s a contribution of being confined and the frustrations that go along with that,” he said. “And then their outlet is their loved ones, the people they live with, whether it be spouse or significant other partner, or even kids.”

Streck said calls to his department related to domestic violence have decreased by 29 percent, including both arrests and reports. He said experts have told him that they believe it’s not because domestic violence is down, but that the victims are stuck at home with the abuser and can’t make the call.

States are also seeing a decline in the reporting of child mistreatment because kids aren’t at school, according to Azar. “They’re not seeing doctors and teachers who would otherwise report maltreatment in the home environment, and so it goes unaddressed,” he said.

“We’ve got to get life back to normal. … The right mindset for reopening is not about balancing health versus the economy. It’s actually about balancing health versus health.”

The CDC didn’t immediately respond to a request by The Epoch Times for comment regarding the estimation of deaths due to shutdown measures, outside of COVID-19.

Follow Charlotte on Twitter: @charlottecuthbo