Richmond Times-Dispatch: Tom Koutsoumpas column: One Major Way to Combat the Mental Health Crisis Brought on by COVID-19

Tom Koutsoumpas column: One Major Way to Combat the Mental Health Crisis Brought on by COVID-19
As CEO of Capital Caring Health, one of the nation’s largest not-for-profit hospice/advanced illness care providers, my colleagues and I are no strangers to loss and grief. Day in and out, we deal with chronic and advanced illness, disability, depression and death — providing care, comfort and consolation to those whom we serve. It’s what we do. We have committed ourselves to fulfilling that mission with comprehensive care, compassion and counseling since our founding more than 40 years ago.
This past year has been like no other. In addition to the sheer enormity of passing the threshold of 500,000 COVID-19 deaths in the United States, those who are left to grieve might number up to 5 million individuals.
And it’s not just the loss of a loved one that deeply can affect someone. Losing a job and income, housing, the ability to access education at all levels, and other things once taken for granted has led to a huge spike in depression and anxiety.
It now nearly is impossible to count the number of people suffering from depression — some openly, some not. With a continuing critical shortage of mental health professionals, many find themselves on waiting lists for appointments, including by telehealth. Those without coverage or funds likely are to be left out.
Taken together, these factors point to another ongoing epidemic of untreated depression. Never before has bereavement and mental health counseling been so needed by so many.
And we notice it especially among seniors.
As providers of elder health along with hospice, we see every day the toll that social isolation has on seniors. Recent studies suggest that older Americans literally are dying of loneliness. It comes in the form of premature death across all causes, including a higher rate of suicide. Fear of catching COVID-19 has kept normally active seniors from human contact. That same fear has caused many to delay needed medical care resulting in unnecessary early deaths. Others — including millions of unemployed workers — are forgoing critical medical treatments, including treatment for depression, due to a lack of funds and/or loss of health coverage.
Equally alarming is the mental health impact of the pandemic on school-age children, teens and young adults who are missing the peer contact that is necessary for normal development. Sadly, the youth suicide rate steadily is increasing; now some surveys indicate 1 out of 3 teens has contemplated suicide.
That is where my organization, Capital Caring Health, and the rest of the nation’s not-for-profit hospice and advanced illness care providers can help. While we mostly are known for compassionate chronic/advanced illness and end-of-life care, we also provide grief and depression counseling for adults and children in our local communities at no charge.
Besides individual and family counseling, we offer a wide range of support groups. For instance, Capital Caring Health — which serves Metro Washington D.C., including most of Virginia and a large part of Maryland — offers special group counseling for COVID-19 loss, whether from death, decline, illness, financial loss or loss of spirit. Our support groups also assist caregivers to process grief, help those who are mourning the death of a pet and so much more.
Like many of our 70 sister not-for-profits across the nation that are members of the National Partnership for Healthcare and Hospice Innovation (NPHI), our dedicated specially trained counselors and chaplains are available to all residents in our service area.
On any given day, NPHI members collectively care for nearly 120,000 patients plus their loved ones and reach nearly 1 million people. But our counseling is for anyone living in the communities we serve throughout the nation — they need not be a patient or family member.
This free counseling is part of our mission to comfort all who need help in coping with grief and unrelenting depression. None of our counseling is covered by tax dollars at the local or national level, or by any form of insurance. Funding support solely comes from the donations of generous businesses, foundations and individuals.
Depression often makes people feel they have no hope and that no one understands or is going through the same experience. Today, more than ever, many family members, friends and neighbors are experiencing depression — often for the first time. There is no need to suffer alone, in silence, or miss care that can make a difference, sometimes between life and death. Your local NPHI member can help.