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    We Will Not Recover from COVID-19 Unless We Invest in Our Community Mental Health System as We’ve Invested in Responding to Food Insecurity

    Depression, anxiety and other mental health issues are spiking during the pandemic as social isolation, economic uncertainty and health worries take their toll. (Getty Images)

    The past four months have brought incredible challenges for every single person living on planet Earth.  Responding to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has tested people in many ways not seen in more than 102 years since the last global pandemic in 1918.  As a nation, the United States of America seems to be playing a game of Russian roulette when it comes to leading the way for our people to stay safe and maintain their health, while the Coronavirus makes its way through our country infecting nearly 3 million and killing more than 130,000 of our residents.  Watching the news reports about COVID-19, or reading the newspapers, online stories, and following our progress, or lack thereof is undoubtedly impacting our mental health and emotional well-being.

    There’s been a great deal of attention focused on essential services and the roles that our healthcare workers have in trying to reduce the curve of new COVID-19 cases and doing their professional best to keep Long Islanders alive.  A majority of us have adjusted the way we function on a daily basis by wearing face masks, frequently washing our hands, maintaining social distance, using hand sanitizer, applying disinfectant wipes to sanitize our furniture and work spaces.  For those of us back at work, or for those of us at Long Island Cares-The Harry Chapin Food Bank, who have been responding to the need for emergency food assistance since March 13, and are now working six-days a week through the end of the year, one of the biggest challenges we’re facing is maintaining our emotional well-being and mental health.

    All of us know someone or even several people that have been diagnosed with Coronavirus.  As our staff meets with numerous people currently at more than 49,000 that have visited one or more of our 25 food distribution centers, we take the time to listen to their concerns, experiences during stay-at-home directives, and understand that at the same time that the need for food assistance has increased, so has the need for mental health assistance.  Our neighbors, especially our seniors and single parent families are experiencing real symptoms of anxiety, depression, isolation, and grief when a family member or friend has been hospitalized, placed on a ventilator, or has passed away.  All of us love our children and many have adjusted to our new reality of attending school online but, there are real consequences to feeling isolated and unattached to the world outside our homes.  This may be one of the reasons that in some parts of our country today, a growing number of people are willing to take the risks associated with not wearing a facial coverings, not social distancing, and willing to go to a bar where the chances of being infected are very high.

    Like many of my colleagues in food banking, I’m so grateful for the additional attention, financial support and recognition that food banks across America have received, and will continue to benefit from in the months ahead as we do our work smarter and safer.  People in need of food assistance are receiving it.  In fact, if you’re in need of food, there are more than 325 places you can access an emergency food package on any given day in Nassau and Suffolk County, and in some communities, people are accessing several food boxes each week.  Those that are hungry are being fed but, what about those people who are struggling emotionally, and could truly benefit from mental health counseling?  As aggressively as federal, state and local governments have invested in responding to food insecurity in the time of COVID-19, we must increase funding for our mental health infrastructure.  After the tragic events of 9/11, New York State established “Project Liberty” to respond to the long-term needs for mental health treatment.  As we know, more New Yorkers have lost their lives as a result of COVID-19, and their ability to recover from the impact of the pandemic requires a coordinate response and a renewed commitment to strengthening our community mental health system, similar to what government has been doing to respond to the increases in food insecurity.

    Originally published in the HIA-LI Reporter, July, 2020

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