By Allison Hufford, The Kennedy Forum Summer Intern
As coronavirus continues to rage throughout the nation, it may seem too early to discuss the logistics of a post-COVID world. But when it comes to our disjointed and underfunded health care system, which has already failed many Americans in a time of unprecedented difficulty, it’s clear that we’re not nearly early enough.
I am a 21-year-old college student, interning remotely with The Kennedy Forum over the summer. I’m lucky to have an internship at all—so many of my peers lost theirs at the onset of the pandemic. And that was just the beginning. Because of COVID-19, my class had a third of our junior year yanked out from under us, and our senior year will be irreversibly changed by remote classes and strict social distancing measures on campus. We might not be the most high-risk age group, but these disappointments—accompanied by increased anxiety, the lonely months of quarantine, and the stress of financial challenges—are taking their toll. COVID-19 is a collective trauma in the making, and the future of mental health care is more important than ever before.
To me, there has always seemed to be a substantial difference between the way my generation—Generation Z—talks about mental health in comparison to the generations before us. Members of Generation Z, and even Millennials, are generally much more open about our mental health struggles and treatment—be it therapy or medication. The conversation has become normalized, partially due to discussion platforms we have created through social media. But with the pandemic sparking new mental health challenges and exacerbating those that already exist, my generation wants to ensure that resources are widely available to those who need them. Not just now, but far into the future of a post-COVID world.
One topic that has come to the forefront of the conversation in the era of COVID-19 is that of telehealth. With the necessity of social distancing, people receiving in-person care have had to switch to remote substitutions, such as video-call therapy sessions. Many therapists and patients have understandably struggled with these changes, but others have found themselves pleasantly surprised. As a practice, telehealth is not a replacement but an alternative to standard in-person care, and its capabilities extend far further than accommodating current public health requirements.
Telehealth makes mental health care accessible to those who may have struggled to access it even before the pandemic, such as those with mobility issues, health problems like chronic fatigue, or those who lack reliable transportation. People with emotional barriers—like severe social anxiety, crippling depression, or agoraphobia—have also benefitted. Even for those who can access in-person therapy, telehealth is oftentimes simply more convenient and time-efficient. It may not be the right choice for everyone, but for many, telehealth is a game-changer. This is just one example of how COVID-19 is already shaping the future of mental health care, both in treatment and in public perception of getting help. We must embrace it and look for other ways to permanently change the landscape of care to benefit everyone.
In the coming decade, the entire American health care system may very well be transformed to prevent another crisis like we’re living today. And when that happens, it’s critical that mental health care is not forgotten. Though this pandemic won’t last forever, its economic impact will likely continue to reverberate through the job market for years to come. As my generation comes of age, it matters that health plans are affordable and have appropriate coverage for all mental health and addiction treatment needs, regardless of employment status. And our employers must prioritize mental health in the workplace. Now, more than ever, we know how important it is. If there’s one thing the pandemic has made clear, it’s that we are all vulnerable to trauma and crisis.
COVID-19 has been tragic in so many ways, but all is not lost; there is still the potential for good to come from this disaster. Government leaders, policymakers, health care systems, and employers need to listen to my generation and start valuing mental health care the way they should have all along.