COVID-19 Nonfiction Policy Public health psychiatry Reading

Public Mental Health Implementation Failure.

Throughout the pandemic, I have routinely reviewed the major psychiatric journals in the United States, hoping for commentary about and guidance related to the prevention or minimization of psychiatric conditions due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Surely there are practices or protocols we could implement to prevent bad outcomes that we knew would happen! While the work we do with individuals might have some potential benefit, the scale of the pandemic meant that population-level interventions would have better effects for a greater number of people. From my point of view, if my finite time and energy could help more than the sole person in front of me, that would be better for all involved.

Three thousand years ago, back in December 2020, I commented that “collective problems require collective solutions; expertise must be decentralized and shared” while reflecting on the need to Protect Mental Health During a Pandemic. Now that three thousand years have passed, it seems that anyone at the federal level who tried to implement the Pan American Health Organization or World Health Organization recommendations from the flu or ebola epidemics was foiled. I lamented then that

We’ve already witnessed psychological stumbling across the population; none of us want to see ourselves, our neighbors, our communities, and those beyond beyond fall further.

We’ve graduated to chronic psychological lurching, floundering, and tottering. Most of the psychiatry journal articles have only described consequences from the current pandemic: who was more likely to get Covid-19? how did it affect the use of substances? how was the pandemic affecting the workforce?

Where were the articles with broad vision, that take the perspective of public health psychiatry?

The Lancet Psychiatry recently published an article that I found refreshing: Public mental health: required actions to address implementation failure in the context of COVID-19:

  1. It acknowledges how the mental health system—one of many—has failed during the pandemic (people may have opinions about whether it was succeeding prior to the pandemic);
  2. It lists specific failures and how to fix these problems (and there are a lot of problems to fix);
  3. It reinforced the need to direct attention and resources to all stages of the lifespan and the various roles, from individuals to national governments, each could play to prevent future failure.

The authors rightly comment

This failure of [public mental health] implementation results in population-scale preventable suffering of individuals and their families, a broad range of impacts…, and large economic costs. The failure also represents a breach of values and the right to health.

Panel 5 lays out how the implementation failures of public mental health:

  1. Insufficient public mental health knowledge
  2. Insufficient mental health policy or policy implementation
  3. Insufficient resources
  4. Insufficient political will
  5. Political nature of some [public mental health] activities
  6. Insufficient appreciation of cultural differences
  7. Causes of mental disorder treatment gap

Oof. It’s a valid list and, indeed, some of the responsibility falls upon mental health and substance use disorder clinicians ourselves. (Different posts for different days.) It’s also striking that, despite the United States being a high income country, we suffer from the same problems listed above that apply to low income countries. (We, however, continue to learn the many ways how the US was and is never different from “those” low income countries.)

As I noted a few weeks ago, “We continue to focus on the viral pandemic; the psychological pandemic has already arrived.” Because of our missteps, the psychological pandemic will also outlast the viral pandemic. The authors note that

The COVID-19 pandemic has widened the implementation gap but has also increased mental health awareness and highlighted the need for a [public mental health] approach.

Now that we are minding the gap, I hope that we can indeed close it.