New Jersey is in the midst of a historic wave of mental health issues. It is a crisis unlike anything we have ever seen before.
That is one of the stark realities of the COVID-19 pandemic. Loneliness, which under normal circumstances is a major driver of mental health issues, is significantly magnified during this period of uncertainty. Many people are embroiled in fear. Unemployment continues to skyrocket, leading not only to a loss of income but to a profound loss of purpose and identity. The absence of regular routines such as work and school – and even normal social interaction – adds to anxiety and has created a new sense of grief that many are struggling to navigate.
All of these things lead to depression and overwhelming feelings of despair, which are manifesting themselves in a wide range of mental health-related issues. Studies show that deaths of despair are expected to rise drastically as a direct result of the trauma many are experiencing from the pandemic. Reports indicate increases in domestic violence, including not just physical but extreme emotional abuse as well. High unemployment rates often correlate to increases in suicide and substance abuse.
Calls to mental health support helplines are reaching numbers that are previously unimagined. And as professionals in behavioral health and substance use disorders, we know all too well that emotional instability resulting from this crisis is causing poor decision-making, which in turn often results in the overuse of alcohol and drugs to dull these intensified feelings of loneliness, boredom, anger, grief and fear.
Don’t simply take our word for it. According to data just released by the New Jersey Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, we are on pace to have more suspected overdose deaths during the month of May 2020 than in any one month over the past three years.
During the COVID-19 crisis, people’s attention is naturally focused on physical health issues. We get that; we fear for ourselves, our families and our friends just as you do. And yes, we also see and are acutely sensitive to the cascading effect that the shutdown has had on our state’s economy and the financial toll it is taking on people.
Our point, though, is simply this: Neglecting mental health and addiction issues and allowing them to take a back seat in the state’s funding discussions will only worsen and magnify both the physical and the economic impact of COVID-19. We must not overlook how tightly intertwined mental health and addiction issues are to both physical and economic health. The unambiguous reality is that the general population’s health and the state’s economic recovery are inextricably tied to continued, sustained mental health and addiction funding. To be blunt, the state’s economy will not regain its full strength if we neglect this essential funding aspect.
Governor Murphy’s agenda for managing the spread of COVID-19 must decisively take into consideration the undeniable connection that mental health has with the physical and economic health of the people of New Jersey. We need to not simply sustain the state’s commitment to mental health and addiction services at this time, but we must prioritize strengthening vital programs and services that will be key to the state successfully and positively emerging from this difficult and unprecedented period in the best and advantageous position possible.
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres fittingly and succinctly summarizes the issue, saying, “Mental health services are an essential part of all government responses to COVID-19. They must be expanded and fully funded.”
It is clear that in the current climate, New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies (NJAMHAA) member agencies are going to be more important than ever to help the state navigate the COVID-19 crisis, and to emerge physically, economically (and yes) mentally stronger.
We strongly urge Gov. Phil Murphy and his administration to consider New Jersey’s mental health and addiction agencies as essential partners in fighting and defeating the COVID-19 crisis. Adequate state funding is vital to ensuring that those who need help have access to care that will lead to better, more productive lives, as well as preventing additional, unnecessary deaths.
We must not only sustain the state’s mental health and addiction services providers, but we must be ready to meet the growing need associated with this historic mental health crisis.
Robert J. Budsock, MS, LCADC, chairs the Board of Directors of NJAMHAA, Inc. and is 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, Ph.D., is president and Chief Executive Officer of the New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies, Inc. (NJAMHAA). NJAMHAA is a statewide trade association representing 144 organizations that serve New Jersey residents with mental illness and/or substance use disorders, and their families.