Dr Robert London

COVID-19 fallout makes case for promoting the mental health czar

Publish date: May 19, 2021

When the Biden administration announced who would serve on its COVID-19 task forcesome asked why a mental health expert had not been included. I have a broader question: In light of the magnitude of the pandemic’s fallout, why doesn’t the administration create a mental health post parallel to the surgeon general?

Dr. Robert T. London of New York

Dr. Robert T. London

I have been making the case for creation of a high-level mental health post for quite some time. In fact, in the late 1970s, toward the end of then-President Jimmy Carter’s term, I wrote and talked about the need for a special cabinet post of mental health. At the time I realized that, besides chronic mental disorders, the amount of mental distress people experienced from a myriad of life issues leading to anxiety, depression, even posttraumatic stress disorder (although not labeled as such then), needed focused and informed leadership.

Before the pandemic, the World Health Organization reported that depression was the leading cause of disability worldwide. In the prepandemic United States, mental and substance use disorders were the top cause of disability among younger people.

We’ve lost almost 600,000 people to COVID-19, and people have been unable to grieve properly. More than 2 million women have left the labor force to care for children and sick family members. As we continue to learn about the mental health–related devastation wrought by SARS-CoV-2 – particularly long-haul COVID-19 – it’s time to dust off my proposal, update it, and implement it.

Building on a good decision

Back in 2017, President Trump appointed Elinore F. McCance-Katz, MD, PhD, to a new post officially called “assistant secretary for mental health and substance use” and unofficially called the “mental health czar.” This was a groundbreaking step, because Dr. McCance-Katz, a psychiatrist, is known for developing innovative approaches to addressing the opioid crisis in her home state of Rhode Island. She resigned from her post on Jan. 7, 2021, citing her concerns about the Jan. 6 insurrection on the U.S. Capitol.

As of this writing, President Biden has nominated psychologist Miriam Delphin-Rittmon, PhD, who is commissioner of Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, as mental health czar. I’m glad to see that the new administration wants a new czar, but I would prefer to see a more expansive role for a mental health professional at the federal level. The reason is because the COVID-19 fallout is requiring us to offer a greater array of mental health and substance use disorder services than ever before.

Processing the current crisis

Americans managed to recover emotionally from the ravages of death and dying from World War II; we lived through the “atomic age” of mutual destruction, sometimes calling it the age of anxiety. But nothing has come close to the overwhelming devastation that COVID-19 has brought to the world – and to this country.

A recent Government Accountability Office report shows 38% of U.S. adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depression from April 2020 through February 2021. That was up from 11% from January to June 2019, the report said, citing data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Meanwhile, the report cites data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration showing that opioid deaths were 25%-50% higher during the pandemic than a year earlier.

My sense is that people generally have opened up regarding their emotional problems in a freer manner, thus allowing us to speak about and accept mental health problems as part of our human reality – just as we accept physical disorders and search for treatment and care.

In terms of talk therapy, I still believe that the “thinking” therapies, that is, cognitive therapies that involved getting a new perspective on problems, are most effective in dealing with the myriad of emotional issues people experience as well as those that have arisen because of COVID-19, and the tremendous fear of severe illness and death that the virus can bring. Besides anxiety, depression, and fear, the psychological toll of a fractured lifestyle, coupled with social isolation, will lead many into a variety of PTSD-related conditions. Many of those conditions, including PTSD, might lift when COVID-19 is controlled, but the time frame for resolution is far from clear and will vary, depending on each person. National leadership, as well as therapists, need to be ready to work with the many mental health problems COVID-19 will leave in its wake.

Therapeutically, as we develop our cognitive approaches to the problems this pandemic has brought, whether affecting people with no past psychiatric history or those with a previous or ongoing problems, we are in a unique position ourselves to offer even more support based on our own experiences during the pandemic. Our patients have seen us wear masks and work remotely, and just as we know about their suffering, they know we have been affected as well. These shared experiences with patients can allow us to express even greater empathy and offer even greater support – which I believe enhances the cognitive process and adds more humanism to the therapeutic process.

The therapists I’ve talked with believe that sharing coping skills – even generally sharing anxieties – can be very therapeutic. They compared these exchanges to what is done in support or educational groups.

As a psychiatrist who has been treating patients using cognitive-behavioral therapy – the thinking therapy – for more than 40 years, I agree that sharing our experiences in this worldwide pandemic with those we are helping can be extremely beneficial. Using this approach would not distract from other cognitive work. CBT, after all, is a far cry from dynamic or psychoanalytic talking or listening.

Change is in the air. More and more Americans are getting vaccinated, and the CDC is constantly updating its guidance on COVID-19. That guidance should have a mental health component.

I urge the president to put mental health at the forefront by nominating an expert who could offer mental health solutions on a daily basis. This person should be on equal footing with the surgeon general. Taking this step would help destigmatize mental suffering and despair – and create greater awareness about how to address those conditions.

Dr. London has been a practicing psychiatrist for 4 decades and a newspaper columnist for almost as long. He has a private practice in New York and is author of “Find Freedom Fast: Short-Term Therapy That Works” (New York: Kettlehole Publishing, 2019). Dr. London has no conflicts of interest.