Helping those with mental health, addiction issues will help slow the virus

By Robert J. Budsock and Debra Wentz

The healthcare crisis presented by the current coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak is both unprecedented and incredibly alarming to those of us in the healthcare community.

Certainly, the attention that is being paid to ramping up healthcare delivery systems, equipment, and facilities is critically important. However, as we rush to prepare for what could be a very extensive and difficult outbreak in our country, we must not forget the needs of those who are among the most vulnerable and most impacted by this current crisis – those who are dealing with mental health and/or addiction issues.

The safety of the most vulnerable in our society must be prioritized – both for their health and well-being and because it is an essential component in slowing the spread of the virus overall. The homeless, our veterans suffering from PTSD and other issues, those with two or more chronic health conditions and others are highly susceptible to the risks associated with COVID-19. This population is not only at a high risk of contracting the virus, but they are also highly at-risk for spreading the virus since they are not as likely to be able to self-quarantine or avoid public places and public transportation.

Already we are seeing the effects. Some of the individuals are deteriorating because they are not able to access necessary services. Like everyone else, they are understandably reticent and cautious about being out in public because of the threat of contracting this new virus. And regulations that serve us well under “normal” circumstances are proving to be an impediment to our delivery of proper, needed care.

At the same time, our workers are experiencing the same level of risk, yet they continue to provide needed services to this community.

Gov. Phil Murphy has taken the lead in addressing what needs to be done on the healthcare front to confront the coronavirus outbreak. We applaud those efforts, but there are many other issues that need to be addressed as we confront this crisis.

In the best of all worlds, the state would provide a blanket relaxation of all of the regulations that are currently serving as an impediment to getting the correct and timely treatment to individuals with mental health and addictions. But there are some concrete, specific steps that we need:

  • Assurance that necessary supplies, including protective gear and sanitizing supplies, are readily available to our workers on the front lines and our provider community.
  • Relaxation of regulations so services can be provided in a timely and as-needed fashion.
  • Assurance of funding despite a reduction of program services and closures to ensure system capacity remains as is, because if not, the system will be decimated, and will be unable to be recreated.
  • As we move forward as a society to confront this unprecedented crisis, we must make sure that mental health and addiction services are not viewed as optional or as a “second-tier” service. Protecting this population from the virus and providing the necessary care and service that they require will go far in helping to flatten the growth curve of infection, help to protect a highly vulnerable population, and reap exponential rewards for society.

Robert J. Budsock, MS, LCADC, is the chairman of the Board of Directors of NJAMHAA, Inc. and president & CEO of Integrity House, one of the largest nonprofit providers of substance use disorder treatment in the state of New Jersey.

Debra L. Wentz, PhD, is president and CEO of NJAMHAA, Inc.

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