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Opinion Pieces

Physically distant, not socially isolated

Originally published in the Highland County Press.

In June, nearly half of American adults reported struggling with mental health or substance use, according to a CDC survey.

Even before the global coronavirus pandemic, suicide rates in the U.S. had already skyrocketed to their highest levels since World War II. Now, with the additional stress of economic pressures, isolation, health concerns, and a bitterly divided political landscape, many Americans are feeling the weight of a heavy mental burden.

There have been missed diagnoses for patients who were unable to see their doctor in person. Some people are struggling with self-esteem, well-being, and purpose in the face of unemployment. Others are deeply concerned for the health of a loved one. A federal emergency hotline for people in emotional distress (1-800-985-5990) registered over a 1,000 percent increase in April compared with this same time last year.

The mental cost of this unprecedented global health crisis can manifest in everything from depression to domestic violence – from substance abuse to suicide. As a doctor, it causes me deep concern for the personal well-being of our neighbors as well as the fabric of our society. There’s no such thing as a “non-essential” American.

Everyone is essential to themselves, their families, friends, and communities, and to our society. While it is important to maintain precautions to contain the spread of the virus, we must also take precautions for maintaining our overall health as a nation. Physically distancing, especially from respiratory droplets, does not mean socially disconnecting. Keeping safe is one thing; keeping to ourselves is another. While we’re being asked to stay away from each other, we can still be there for one another.

Connection and community are integral to our health and our humanity. I think about Sergeant Brent "Hoss" Allen Hendrix. A fellow Iraq war vet, Hoss lost his right leg and suffered a traumatic brain injury in a blast when he was only 21, but he never lost his sense of humor. It seemed like there wasn't a day in his life that Hoss wasn't out making friends or talking to people. He was a fixture of the Cincinnati community.

But on Thursday, April 23, 2020, Hoss left us. The coronavirus-induced isolation had confined Hoss to his wheelchair in his one-room apartment, unable to attend physical therapy and separated from the activities, people, and community that meant so much to him. The cumulative pain of everything he experienced became too much when coupled with isolation. Hoss is deeply missed.

As National Suicide Awareness Month draws to a close, it is an opportunity to continue to push for conversations about the intricate connection between mental and physical health. The coronavirus pandemic only underscores the urgency of these discussions at a policy level.

Just this past week, the bipartisan National Suicide Hotline Designation Act passed the House of Representatives with my support. This bill creates a three-digit number (988) for suicide prevention and mental health crises. It already passed unanimously in the Senate, through Senator Cory Gardner's leadership, and will now be signed into law by President Trump.

Meanwhile, on an individual and community level, we also have the power to reject the divisiveness of a political landscape that normalizes dismissing other people’s pain and to choose to cultivate kindness and human connection. We can each do that right now.

Reach out to check in on a friend you haven’t heard from in a while or set up a safe walk together. Pause and reflect on better days ahead. Deliver groceries to a neighbor. Wave to a stranger you pass on the street. Typically, it’s true that you never know what the person next to you may be going through. But this year, to an extent, we do know. Nearly everyone has been impacted by the pandemic in some way.

As we work to reopen safely and responsibly, rebuild our economy and restore our way of life, let’s also prioritize deeper connection with each other and with our communities. We can overcome difficult times. We have in the past, and we will again. There’s no need to do it alone. In fact, it’s better for our health, and our humanity, when we do it together.