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By John Boyd, Mental Health America Board Member and CEO for Mental Health Services & Addiction Care at Sutter Health, an integrated healthcare network with more than 50,000 employees caring for the communities of Northern California, Hawaii and Southern Oregon

Last year, towns throughout California faced a season of historic wildfires that displaced thousands, destroyed property and put significant strain on the state’s infrastructure. As an integrated healthcare network in the heart of Northern California, our team came together in coordinated response. In the initial minutes, hours and weeks, we mobilized to safely evacuate facilities, donate funds, redeploy resources and shift services to address emerging medical needs.

As I proudly participated in our team’s impressive effort to serve the community during this time of great need, I saw something even more powerful than funding and clinical care at work. I saw individuals joining together to support one another in ways big and small. It rapidly became clear that in times of crisis, putting our shared humanity front and center is critical to a successful response and recovery. A key component of that is recognizing that mental health and physical health are one and the same—an idea that we call “human health.” Achieving this shift in thinking requires listening to, learning from and validating people’s lived experiences to provide services that are responsive to those experiences. These lessons from our recent past now guide us through the present moment.

Today, millions of people are coping with the psychological impact of the COVID-19 crisis, and for many, that impact will linger even after the immediate threat subsides. Yet, even as our society “returns to normal,” it is becoming clear that we will be different after living through this experience. Social isolation, financial stress, uncertainty about the future, fear, loss—these are the lived realities of COVID-19. They are also quintessentially human. They speak to the core of who we are and how we understand ourselves and our world—or don’t. It is incumbent on each of us to respect and value those experiences, and to center the whole person in our response. This is what human health is about, and it is a guiding principle in our strategy for confronting this pandemic as well as building a future of empathy, hardiness and mental wellbeing in our communities.

So, what does that actually look like at Sutter Health? Here are just a few steps we’ve taken to respond to the needs of our employees and the communities we serve:

  1. Operational Support: First and foremost, we want our team to feel safe and supported when they come into work each day. Our Sutter Health Emergency Management System team has mobilized quickly to organize PPE inventory, staff facilities appropriately, set up daycare options, deploy resources and provide information daily to meet the particular needs of the current crisis.
     
  2. Adapting and Scaling Services: Building up our telepsychiatry capacity has been a priority as we strive to serve more people in need. Now, with more people working from home and in-person appointments unavailable, telepsychiatry services are more vital than ever, and we are working to meet demand.
     
  3. Everyday Wellbeing: From frontline workers battling the pandemic to parents adapting to working from home while teaching young children, we are all facing unique stresses right now. In collaboration with partners like Mental Health America, we are sharing tools and resources for the full range of mental health needs.

As we pursue these goals, of course, we are always learning, growing and adapting. Each day, just as virologists and epidemiologists expand our knowledge of the disease, we in mental health and addiction care discover new layers to its psychological impact. The most deeply human aspects of the disease—the ways it has changed our relationships, routines and emotions—may be the hardest to resolve in the long term. There is no vaccine for trauma. We don’t become immune to grief through exposure.

In the wake of the California wildfires and other natural disasters, studies have shown a high incidence of PTSD, anxiety and depression among survivors. Researchers and experts have already predicted similar outcomes, not only during the acute phase of COVID-19, but long after incidence rates begin to fall. In New York, the epicenter of the crisis in the United States, an EMT first responder and an ER doctor both died of suicide in the same weekend. Working on the front lines of the response, these workers, like so many others, were forced to confront death and suffering on a scale most of us cannot imagine. We should honor their memories and admire their heroism, and we should also reflect on what their deaths mean.

These tragedies must bring attention to the broader need for mental health support in our society, especially in times of crisis. To achieve this, we need to move beyond the distinctions between mental and physical health, and see people for who they are: humans. We should also acknowledge that this responsibility falls on all of us to bring more compassion, empathy and understanding into our world. From simply complying with stay-at-home orders to supporting essential workers, people around the country are already demonstrating their capacity to look out for their fellow human beings. It will be critical for all of us in healthcare to remember these lessons and further breakdown barriers to care—even after we put away the extra masks and hand sanitizer. Our future depends on it.

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