Being Mindful of Mental Health
Mental health touches so many areas of our lives and society, yet we avoid talking about it. While ideally we should be acknowledging and addressing the subject on a daily basis, as a start, let’s use May, designated as Mental Health Awareness Month, as an opportunity to bring it to the forefront.
Widespread mental health issues were already a concern before COVID-19 hit, but the pandemic exacerbated and underscored the extent of the problem. A survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 38% of participants reported anxiety and depression over the past year – an increase of 11% from 2019. And visits to emergency departments for overdoses and suicide attempts jumped significantly between March and October of 2020.1
For PAEA CEO Mary Jo Bondy, DHEd, MHS, PA-C, mental health and preparing PAs to extend access to care for those in need has long been a personal and professional goal. She has seen a lot during her years practicing in multiple specialties and as a PA educator but recalls one incident in particular that really touched a nerve. “During an admissions interview day not too many years ago, I asked a group of prospective PAs how many had been impacted by mental health or addiction issues,” said Bondy. “I was struck when every hand went up.”
For Bondy, this was a clear indication that mental health encompasses so much more than just schizophrenia or bipolar disorder — the uninformed perception that so many of us seem to have. ”We need to view health as not merely the absence of disease, but rather the interplay of physical, emotional, and spiritual health,” explained Bondy.
Health for All
PAEA takes its organizational vision of “Health for All” seriously. That’s why PAEA President Michel Statler, MLA, PA-C, chose “wellness” as the theme for 2021. “PA programs and PA faculty have been operating at surge capacity since last March. We have experienced tremendous changes in everything from the way we handle our admissions process to commencement,” said Statler. “There is Zoom fatigue superimposed on COVID fatigue superimposed on the issues relating to systemic racism.”
This added anxiety from COVID and social injustice, combined with the stressors of everyday life that were already present, has made putting an emphasis on wellness more urgent than ever.
As we now move beyond the pandemic, we need to focus on removing barriers to health and wellness. And that means removing the stigma that surrounds mental health issues, which can get in the way of asking for help. For millennia, those suffering from mental disorders have been stigmatized far more than those with other illnesses. And for much of history, society treated individuals suffering from mental illness as second-class citizens.2
Unfortunately, the inaccurate stereotypes and misinformation surrounding mental illness continue to exist. As an EMBO Reports article notes, “Structural discrimination of the mentally ill is still pervasive, whether in legislation or in rehabilitation efforts.”2 That is why education and a better understanding of mental health are critical if change is to take place.
A Valuable Role for PAs
PAs and PAEA have a considerable opportunity and responsibility to change the conversation and increase access to mental health services — through improving education, decreasing stigma, and increasing advocacy efforts. PAs’ training also makes them uniquely qualified to incorporate mental health into their practice, no matter what their specialty. Bondy noted how they are trained from the very beginning to keep the patient at the center of everything. That is why so much time and energy is put into how to take a history, how to build rapport with patients, and how to discuss their lifestyle and experiences, which may be impacting their health.
While the lack of behavioral health professionals is widespread, it is particularly acute in rural areas.1 To help alleviate this situation, Bondy said that PA programs need to recruit from rural areas with the intention of returning students to those areas to practice. “It’s about creating longitudinal relationships with hospitals and clinical practices as well as community centers and AHECs. Having students return to rural communities to do their clinical training has been shown in research to retain those providers,” she said. “People who understand the life of the rural community and respect and value the rich tradition and culture — as well as the challenges they face — will be best poised to make a difference there.”
She also emphasized that we need to take time to care for ourselves before we can care for others. “Through our own self-care, we can see the value of doing this work. My hope is that by addressing mental health with parity to physical health complaints, PAs can extend access to and treatment of mental illness.”
Attending to Our Own Mental Health
After living with the uncertain fear of COVID and coping with feelings of isolation over the past year, we are finally beginning to return to the life we had before the pandemic. But now we are faced with a different kind of stress. A recent article in the Washington Post said that many of us are experiencing what mental health professionals call “re-entry anxiety” — the fear of getting back out into the world.3 Although we are much better protected from the virus thanks to the vaccine, the thought of wearing something besides sweatpants and slippers and having to brush up on our small talk and social skills can feel overwhelming. While this may not qualify as a serious mental health issue, it does significantly affect our overall wellbeing.
“Mental health affects how we think and feel, which in turn impacts our adaptability to change and our ability to address the challenges of the day to day,” said Statler. “Sound mental health provides the resiliency needed to cope with life stressors and maintain a positive outlook.”
There are numerous ways to boost your mental health and personal wellness, especially as you prepare to “re-enter” society. To get started, or for new ideas and tips, we invite you to check out the wellness resources in the Digital Learning Hub.
1 U.S. Government Accountability Office website. (2021, March 31). Fast facts. https://www.gao.gov/products/gao-21-437r
2 Rossler, W. (2016). The stigma of mental disorders. EMBO Reports. 17(9): 1250-1253.
3 Shadel, JD. (2021, May 3). Anxious about post-vaccine travels? You’re not alone, according to mental health pros. Special to the Washington Post.