Mental Health Awareness: Are Your Patients Suffering?
The pandemic has affected almost all aspects of people’s lives; not only has their physical well-being been jeopardized by the virus, but it has made them vulnerable to mental health struggles as well. This is due to several factors, including lockdowns, social-distancing and the fear of contracting the virus. These daily acts of isolating have, not surprisingly, contributed to feelings of isolation and loneliness, according to Henry Ford Manager of Behavioral Health Integration Services Amanda May. She added that prolonged stress and isolation can lead to depression, anxiety and increased risk for substance abuse – particularly the use of alcohol.
“Over the last two years, Behavioral Health has seen an unprecedented rise in mental health conditions in people who have never experienced these types of struggles before,” May said. “Actually, this time period can be harder for someone who has never sought behavioral health treatment because they have not been exposed to the tools that can help them.”
Primary Care Physicians (PCPs) are generally the first line of defense for patients who may be struggling with their mental health. All providers, but especially PCPs, should be aware of the possible indicators of a declining mental state. If a patient is exhibiting these behaviors, or others that appear abnormal, it is an opportunity to start a conversation with the patient.
Being the one to introduce this topic can help reduce any stigma surrounding mental health, and make your patients feel more comfortable opening up. There are resources available for assessing a patient’s mental health, such as depression and anxiety screenings. These can be found in most EMRs, including Epic. If you are not on Epic, you may want to explore tools such as the Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ9) or the Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD7) screeners. Keep in mind that discussing any health issue, especially mental health, can be challenging for the patient because it is not as objective as, for instance, a sore throat or sprained ankle. Because of this, it is important for you, the provider, to initiate the conversation. Interestingly, this conversation is not hindered if needed to be conducted virtually. According to May, “patients sometimes feel more comfortable discussing their mental health through a virtual visit format because they are in the familiar environment of their own home; it also removes transportation issues.”
Despite the toll the pandemic has taken, it has opened the door for providers and patients to develop closer relationships because of the opportunity for patients to share personal emotional information and receive validation from the provider. These stronger bonds can potentially prompt increased trust and compliance on the part of the patient.
“While the lives of our patients have changed dramatically, it is important to embrace the positive outcomes from these past two years,” May said. “And a closer relationship between patient and provider is certainly one of them. The key is to maintain that connection going forward.”