COVID-19’s Impact on Mental Health

Nonprofits are leading the response

by Kieran McTague

Senior Vice President and Director, New York, Principal

Posted May 20, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound and alarming impact on mental health in America. According to a survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 56 percent of survey participants cited worry or stress associated with the outbreak has led to at least one negative effect on their well-being. They noted areas such as trouble sleeping, eating, and alcohol use. The Washington Post reported that calls to a federal emergency hotline for those experiencing emotional distress increased by more than 1,000 percent in April. Talkspace, an online and mobile therapy company, has seen a 65 percent increase in active users since mid-February.

Unfortunately, at a time when the need for mental health services has increased exponentially, there is a lack of federal funding that is hindering providers’ ability to help. In early April, mental health organizations wrote a letter to Congress stating that $38.5 billion would be needed to keep treatment providers from closing and an additional $10 billion was required for an adequate response to the pandemic. Yet, as the Washington Post reports, the government has allocated less than 1 percent of the requested amount.

As always, but especially in times of crisis, the nonprofit sector steps up to provide the critical leadership needed to support those most in need. Our clients have found effective ways to rapidly adapt and innovate their programs and program delivery so their constituents and communities receive the mental health services so vital to their well-being. The following are a few examples that highlight the remarkable work of our mental health clients and the trends they see developing in the field:

Fountain House – New York, NY

Fountain House is one of the largest community-based mental health and public health nonprofit service organizations in the world. Core to their mission is treating the most marginalized members of our society. Speaking with USA Today, President and CEO Dr. Ashwin Vasan said, “The virus is an equal-opportunity crisis … but the impact and the burden of it is not going to be shared equally. Like most things in society, it’s going to be regressive. It’s going to be felt disproportionately by the poor, the vulnerable, the marginalized…” Fountain House is prioritizing these populations—including “people of color…folks who are homeless, mentally ill, refugees, new immigrants, veterans and sexual minorities”—through intentional and strategic outreach to ensure they do not “bear the brunt of the epidemic when all is said and done” (Hyperakt).

At the same time, the pandemic has required Fountain House to rethink its model entirely. Founded on a clubhouse model, Fountain House emphasizes the therapeutic value of community and congregating in a safe, physical space. Naturally, the pandemic has prohibited that approach. In addition to transitioning to 1:1 home-based care and outreach, which included the distribution of phones, Fountain House took advantage of “this moment to build a Virtual Clubhouse community…leveraging platforms like Facebook, Slack, and Zoom, to create an approximation of our therapeutic social services in a digital environment, which now has over 1,000 subscribers and will form a permanent part of our infrastructure going forward, ” Dr. Vasan shared. The Virtual Clubhouse offers a living room where members can chat with each other and view live-streams, workgroups where staff and members collaborate on projects such as meal delivery and member onboarding, and a community space for meetings and social programming. Fountain House also hopes to expand the virtual platform to other clubhouse programs – across the country and the world.

Cohen Veterans Network – Stamford, CT

Cohen Veteran Network’s mission is to improve the quality of life for veterans and their families. CVN works to strengthen mental health outcomes and complement existing support, with a particular focus on post-traumatic stress as well as other mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.

In response to a survey of service members, veterans, and military family members conducted by CVN, nearly 50% reported that they or a family member had reached out for mental health help during the coronavirus pandemic. In comparison, only 14% of the survey’s nonmilitary respondents said the same. Speaking with Connecting Vets, CVN President and Iraq war veteran Anthony Hassan said, “While some may say, ‘Oh, my gosh, there’s a problem there,’ I was thrilled to see it, honestly… I worked my whole career trying to get people to engage in care early — to get help when they need it. They asked for help. That’s remarkable.”

To meet the clear need of their clients—and to ensure consistent care—CVN’s network of clinics quickly pivoted to providing therapy and case management services virtually. This pivot aligns with CVN’s growing investment in offering telehealth services. From January 2019 to March 2020, there was a 400% increase in telehealth sessions at the Cohen Clinics, and March alone saw an over 500% increase from the previous month (CVN).

CVN is also providing support and community through virtual events and workshops on topics such as managing finances, career services, mindfulness hours, social hours, how to crochet, and more. “Just as there are challenges, there are opportunities. There are opportunities to do more during this crisis than we ever imagined,” Hassan said. “Here at CVN, we are reimagining our reality and considering new and creative opportunities. We must embrace everything with a new frame of reference.”

Samaritans – Boston, MA

Samaritans is committed to reducing the risk of suicide, providing support for those who have lost someone to suicide, and increasing awareness about suicide prevention throughout Greater Boston and across MA. They know that the people they serve deserve their full attention and energy, especially in overwhelming and chaotic times like these. To ensure safety, they have temporarily adapted their programs in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thanks to their volunteers continuing work remotely, Samaritans has been able to continue providing 24/7 crisis services. Keeping their Helpline open 24/7 for has been especially critical as Samaritans experiences a sharp increase in texts and calls. Speaking with WCVB, Executive Director Kathy Marchi remarked, “Our callers typically have a lot of that anxiety and experience, a lot of isolation and loneliness, despair. And this current situation is exacerbating those concerns…Post 9/11, post Marathon bombing, there were spikes that then came down after a few days and this is already sustained over more days than in the past. And we do expect it will be sustained over a longer period of time as this all runs its course.”

Samaritans has also found a way to continue their grief support services while virtual. The organization typically offers peer support grounds, called SafePlace meetings, to people who are bereaved by a loss to suicide. In the meantime, these meetings are being conducted over Zoom. And while Samaritans’ in-person suicide prevention workshops are suspended, their team has instead been delivering webinars twice a week that are open to the public. Workshops cover risk factors and warning signs for suicide, and how to help someone who may be struggling.

All of us here at Development Guild recognize the critical role our friends and clients are playing in supporting the most vulnerable among us during this crisis. As we face these uncertain times together, it is our top priority to support you. Visit our COVID-19 Resources page for useful information and insights.