COMMENTARY

What the Biden-Harris COVID-19 Task Force Is Missing

Ranna Parekh, MD, and Kali Cyrus, MD, MPH

Disclosures

November 25, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

On November 9, the Biden-Harris administration announced the members of its Coronavirus advisory board. Among them were many esteemed infectious disease and public health experts ― encouraging, given that, for now, the COVID-19 pandemic shows no signs of slowing down. Not among them was a mental health professional.

As psychiatrists, we did not find this omission surprising, given the sidelined role our specialty too often plays among medical professionals. But we did find it disappointing. Not having a single behavioral health provider on the Task Force will prove to be a mistake that could affect millions of Americans.

Studies continue to roll in showing that patients with COVID-19 can present during and after infection with neuropsychiatric symptoms, including delirium, psychosis, and anxiety. In July, a meta-analysis published in The Lancet regarding the neuropsychological outcomes of earlier diseases caused by coronaviruses ― severe acute respiratory syndrome and Middle East respiratory syndrome ― suggested that in the short term, close to a quarter of patients experienced confusion representative of delirium. In the long term, following recovery, respondents frequently reported emotional lability, impaired concentration, and traumatic memories. Additionally, more recent research published in The Lancet suggests that rates of psychiatric disorders, dementia, and insomnia are significantly higher among survivors of COVID-19. This study echoes the findings of an article in JAMA from September that reported that among patients who were hospitalized for COVID-19, mortality rates were higher for those who had previously been diagnosed with a psychiatric condition. And overall, the pandemic has been associated with significantly increased rates of anxiety and depression symptoms.

Although this research is preliminary, it would be irresponsible ― and at the very least myopic — not to take seriously the downstream consequences of the damage to the American people's psyches when planning how our system can adapt to ensure that there is access to care and treatment.

This is especially true when you consider the following:

  1. It is very difficult to diagnose and treat mental health symptoms in a primary care setting that is already overburdened. Doing so results in delayed treatment and increased costs.

  2. In the long term, COVID-19 survivors will overburden the already underfunded mental healthcare system.

  3. Additional unforeseen psychological outcomes stem from the myriad traumas of events in 2020 (eg, racial unrest, children out of school, loss of jobs, the recent election).

Psychiatric disorders are notoriously difficult to diagnose and treat in the outpatient primary care setting, which is why mental health professionals will need to be a more integral part of the postpandemic treatment model and should be represented on the Task Force. Each year in the United States, there are more than 8 million doctors' visits for depression, and more than half of these are in the primary care setting. Yet, fewer than half of those patients leave with a diagnosis of depression or are treated for it.

Historically, screening for depression in the primary care setting is difficult, given its broad presentation of symptoms, which include nonspecific physical complaints, such as digestive problems, headaches, insomnia, or general aches and pains. These shortcomings exist despite multiple changes in guidelines, such as regarding the use of self-screening tools and general screening for specific populations, such as postpartum women.

But screening alone has not been an effective strategy, especially when certain groups are less likely to be screened. These include older adults, Black persons, and men, all of whom are at higher risk for mortality after COVID-19. There is a failure to consistently apply standards of universal screening across all patient groups, and even if it occurs, there is a failure to establish reliable treatment and follow-up regimens. As clinicians, imagine how challenging diagnosis and treatment of more complicated psychiatric syndromes, such as somatoform disorder, will be in the primary care setting after the pandemic.

When almost two thirds of symptoms in primary care are already "medically unexplained," how do we expect primary care doctors to differentiate between those presenting with vague coronavirus-related "brain fog," the run of the mill worrywart, and the 16% to 34% with legitimate hypochondriasis of somatoform disorder who won't improve without the involvement of a mental health provider?

A Specialty in Shortage

The mental health system we have now is inadequate for those who are currently diagnosed with mental disorders. Before the pandemic, emergency departments were boarding increasing numbers of patients with psychiatric illness because beds on inpatient units were unavailable. Individuals with insurance faced difficulty finding psychiatrists or psychotherapists who took insurance or who were availabile to accept new patients, given the growing shortage of providers in general. Community health centers continued to grapple with decreases in federal and state funding despite public political support for parity. Individuals with substance use faced few options for the outpatient, residential, or pharmacologic treatment that many needed to maintain sobriety.

Since the pandemic, we have seen rates of anxiety, depression, and suicidal thinking increase among adults and youth while many clinics have been forced to lay off employees, reduce services, or close their doors. As psychiatrists, we not only see the lack of treatment options for our patients but are forced to find creative solutions to meet their needs. How are we supposed to adapt (or feel confident) when individuals with or without previous mental illness face downstream consequences after COVID-19 when not one of our own is represented in the Task Force? How can we feel confident that downstream solutions acknowledge and address the intricacy of the behavioral health system that we, as mental health providers, know so intimately?

And what about the cumulative impact of everything else that has happened in 2020 in addition to the pandemic?! Although cataloging the various negative events that have happened this year is beyond the scope of this discussion, such lists have been compiled by the mainstream media and include the Australian brush fires, the crisis in Armenia, racial protests, economic uncertainties, and the run-up to and occurrence of the 2020 presidential election. Research is solid in its assertion that chronic stress can disturb our immune and cardiovascular systems as well as mental health, leading to depression or anxiety. As a result of the pandemic itself, plus the events of this year, mental health providers are already warning not only of the current trauma underlying our day-to-day lives but also that of years to come.

More importantly, healthcare providers, both those represented by members of the Task Force and those who are not, are not immune to these issues. Before the pandemic, rates of suicide among doctors were already above average compared with other professions. After witnessing death repeatedly, self-isolation, the risk for infection to family, and dealing with the continued resistance to wearing masks, who knows what the eventual psychological toll our medical workforce will be?

Mental health providers have stepped up to the plate to provide care outside of traditional models to meet the needs that patients have now. One survey found that 81% of behavioral health providers began using telehealth for the first time in the past 6 months, owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. If not for the sake of the mental health of the Biden-Harris Task Force members themselves, who as doctors are likely to downplay the impact when struggling with mental health concerns in their own lives, a mental health provider deserves a seat at the table.

Plus, the outcomes speak for themselves when behavioral health providers collaborate with primary care providers to give treatment or when mental health experts are members of health crisis teams. Why wouldn't the same be true for the Biden-Harris Task Force?

Kali Cyrus, MD, MPH, is an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland. She sees patients in private practice and offers consultation services in diversity strategy. Ranna Parekh, MD, MPH, is past deputy medical director and director of diversity and health equity for the American Psychiatric Association. She is currently a consultant psychiatrist at the Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, and the chief diversity and inclusion officer at the American College of Cardiology.

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