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Q: How has the coronavirus pandemic affected mental health?

A: On top of the risk of contracting the infectious disease called COVID-19, another invisible impact of the pandemic reaches across all demographics and regions of the country. Americans are coping with unprecedented disruptions to daily life, uncertainty about the future and isolation due to social distancing policies. With historic unemployment and financial hardship resulting from the economic shutdown, many U.S. households are struggling to pay their bills and feed their families. First responders, health care professionals and essential workers on the frontlines of the pandemic face acute concerns for their personal health and the safety of their loved ones. Students adapted to distance learning and coped with the disappointment of an abrupt departure from end-of-school-year traditions, sports seasons and life milestones. Residents in congregate care facilities aren’t able to socialize or receive in-person visits from friends and loved ones. What’s more, Iowans have shared concerns about the recovery, holding on to their businesses, getting employees to return to work and returning to normal.

For countless Americans, pandemic-related burdens create and compound mental wellness challenges that may become overwhelming to manage. A national study issued this month projects an additional 75,000 Americans could die by suicide, drugs or alcohol abuse because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some behavioral health professionals are concerned that strides made during the Trump administration to reduce opioid overdose deaths may swing in the other direction. National Mental Health Awareness Month originated decades ago to help erase the stigma surrounding mental illness and to encourage people to seek help if stress, anxiety or depression interferes with productivity and daily life. Looking back at 2020, history will teach future generations many important lessons. One takeaway I hope endures through the ages is the unwritten social contract Iowans have cherished for generations. We look out for our neighbors. During these uncertain times, it’s more important than ever to reach out, lend an ear and offer a helping hand as more people may experience depression, anxiety, trauma and grief. For those who may benefit from mental health services or counseling, know that help is available. Recognizing the urgent need for behavioral health care during the pandemic, Congress and the Trump administration worked to expand access to counseling and potentially life-saving services. The CARES Act boosts funding in the Community Mental Health Services block grant program administered by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). These dollars will pay for behavioral health services for children and adults, including emergency funding to provide crisis intervention services and help Americans with substance use disorder treatment. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) also delivered $1 million to Iowa to offer free counseling services to Iowans impacted by the public health emergency. The Iowa Department of Human Services has launched COVID Recovery Iowa to help Iowans of all ages and all walks of life cope with emotional uncertainty, depression or anxiety stemming from isolation, unemployment or other factors from the pandemic. Counseling sessions will take place through virtual sessions, reaching Iowans by video, chat or phone.

Q: How can Iowans access COVID Recovery Iowa and other mental health services?

A: One of the barriers to getting help is recognizing the need for assistance or support. This is why it’s important for Iowans to take stock of their own mental wellness and keep tabs on co-workers, friends, neighbors and loved ones. During times of uncertainty, it’s important to recognize stress and figure out ways to cope and manage one’s burdens before they lead to depression, addiction or unhealthy behaviors. Congress expanded access to telemedicine during the public health emergency that’s also helping connect behavioral health professionals with people who need help. In addition, the Trump administration loosened restrictions to allow medical visits provided over the phone to include many behavioral health and patient education services. As society moves in the right direction to erase the stigma surrounding mental illnesses, I’ll continue my efforts to support prevention and treatment for Americans seeking help for behavioral health, addiction and suicidal crisis.

For many years, I’ve led efforts in the U.S. Senate to implement suicide prevention outreach and services for veterans and farmers. Most recently, I introduced the bipartisan Seeding Rural Resilience Act to build upon the FARMERS FIRST ACT enacted in the 2018 farm bill. My bill would implement a voluntary program to train local USDA employees to help identify farmers in stress before it’s too late. Hog and poultry producers today are facing harrowing decisions with market-ready herds and flocks that have no place to go due to supply chain disruptions. Plus, five consecutive years of low commodity prices are adding to the distress rippling across Rural America. COVID Recovery Iowa has dedicated a toll-free hotline to connect Iowans with a counselor who specializes in rural and agriculture-related issues. That number is (800) 447-1985, available 24/7. To connect with a peer counselor or request a COVID Recovery Iowa counselor, call (844) 775-9276. Or visit www.COVIDrecoveryiowa.org to fill out a contact form and have a counselor get in touch with you directly.

 May is National Mental Health Awareness Month. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is (800) 273-TALK. The National Helpline for Treatment Referrals is (800) 662-HELP.