We are at a critical time in history, and of utmost importance is minimizing negative mental health consequences of COVID-19 impacting our communities. As Americans perish to this novel coronavirus, there are growing issues of unaddressed loss, grief, and trauma. The inability to take care of loved ones during sickness, the incapability to say final goodbyes, and being restricted from performing sacred burial rituals are just some precipitators of grief and trauma. Simultaneously, millions of Americans continue to lose jobs. Along with careers, many are being forced to mark ends to lifestyles that took years to achieve. Similarly, small businesses are collapsing like houses of cards, taking with them all the sacrifice, hard work, and dedication that went into building them.
What happens when federal and state unemployment benefits are depleted and the job market has not rebounded? Face it, many of these jobs will never come back. What happens when people are unable to afford rent, and entire families end up in homeless shelters fending for themselves at no fault of their own? Loneliness and stress not only affect mental health, but can also catalyze physical medical problems and unhealthy coping skills that can lead to substance use and suicide. We should prepare to respond to these stressors with our recently tested resources and systems. We must anticipate these problems and proactively plan to tackle them so we are not forming emergency task forces with the hour at hand. And it will require a concerted effort by the health professional community.
As health professionals, it is our duty to ensure that the underrepresented and vulnerable among us are not overlooked. What must be avoided at all cost is driving the already disadvantaged further underground, and widening pre-existing healthcare disparities. These populations include people of color, immigrants, the undocumented, the homeless, those with preexisting mental health conditions, those involved with the justice system and with substance use issues, victims of domestic violence and human trafficking, among others.
No one should be turned away from the emergency room. No one should have to lose their life begging for help or to be turned away instead of being tested for the virus. Absolutely no one should be evicted because of job loss. And when a vaccine is developed and made available, it must be made free of cost to everyone. The list goes on. We cannot let people fall through the cracks. We can emerge a more sensitive, united, tolerant, caring, and sensible society from this pandemic. To do so, health professionals will be required to continue playing roles of healers, care-givers, and advocates.