Social workers tell us that primary care providers are inundated with patients seeking help with psychic symptoms that require the attention of a psychiatric specialist. Family physicians and emergency room doctors often do not feel qualified to deal with this new mental health crisis and need the help of social workers to execute a referral process while helping patients feel more comfortable going to a new and unfamiliar physician.
The Developing Mental Health Crisis
August Medical Journals Reported:
- The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released a report in mid-August saying 40 percent of US adults reported struggling with mental health and substance abuse due to the pandemic. The CDC found “symptoms of anxiety disorder and depressive disorder increased considerably in the United States during April–June of 2020, compared with the same period in 2019,” which are translating into higher rates of suicidal thoughts.
- The survey shows that these rates are higher for adults between the ages of 18 and 24, essential workers, unpaid caregivers, and people of color, who all reported experiencing “disproportionately worse mental health outcomes, increased substance use, and elevated suicidal ideation.”
- One study predicts we could see as many as 75,000 more suicides because of the pandemic.
- Another study published in QJM (An International Study of Medicine) claims the “mental health consequences of the COVID-19 crisis, including suicidal behavior, are likely to be present for a long time and peak later than the actual pandemic.”
- US sales of alcoholic beverages rose 55% in the week ending 21 March 2020 compared with the same period last year. Online alcohol sales jumped 243%.”
- The Inland Northwest Behavioral Health in Washington State reported staggering numbers:
- A 365% increase in patients with schizophrenia.
- A 140% increase in patients with major depressive orders with psychotic features.
- And a 198% increase in patients with schizophrenic depressive-type disorders, all compared to client diagnoses pre-COVID.
Patients who are suffering with the serious physical effects of COVID; those who tested positive but do not yet show symptoms; confused family members weighing quarantine with the need to go to work; mourners unable to see their family member in their last moments or honor their remains in a traditional fashion; front line workers who fear for their family’s welfare as they seek to treat the seriously ill and, finally, the elderly who know it could be fatal to come out of the house, and have been in self-imposed solitary confinement for six months, are all displaying symptoms of emotional distress and seeking help from their family or emergency room doctors.
Social Worker Support
Social workers have long been a part of medicine and do important preventive work in primary care as advocates for patients and as supportive colleagues for medical providers. The pandemic has delivered many emotionally troubled patients to the PCP’s doorstep, and social workers are helping them pick up the pieces:
- Social workers are helping PCPs deliver on their promise to address patient behavioral health needs by acting as trustworthy and knowledgeable specialists within the primary care office to direct the patient to the best possible care.
- Social workers are using team-based approaches to provide short-term treatment and ongoing care management, while also linking patients to available resources in their community.
- Social workers are acting as an extension of provider knowledge, giving patients confidence that their PCP has the skills to help them and that they are treatable.
- Social workers are facilitating communication between the patient and their PCP, providing continuity of care, improving interactions and the flow of information, and helping the patient feel more listened to, understood, and cared about.
- Finally, PCPs are supported and benefit from the trauma-based knowledge and experience that social workers can provide to patients with behavior health needs.