Pence, Van Dahlen & Van Winkle: During coronavirus crisis, we must also focus on our mental health

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We are living through an extremely frightening and stressful time. Doctors, health care workers and first responders are on the front lines risking their lives to fight the COVID-19 outbreak. Countless Americans are caring for and feeding the disadvantaged, keeping power on in homes, ensuring grocery stores stay open and delivering critical necessities to doorsteps.

However, COVID-19 presents challenges beyond the immediate physical danger and visible economic impact. The disease has disrupted our mental health system, closing clinics and requiring providers to find alternative methods to care for clients. As a result, along with compounding stress, we may see corresponding increases in other dangerous societal consequences, including domestic violence and child abuse.

Just as washing hands, disinfecting surfaces and maintaining physical distance is required, so too is caring for our own mental health and the psychological well-being of others.

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In March 2019, President Trump signed an executive order establishing a three-year effort known as the president’s Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End a National Tragedy of Suicide (PREVENTS). PREVENTS created an interagency task force to lead the development and implementation of a national strategy to change how our nation thinks about and addresses mental health and suicide prevention.

Now more than ever before, we must take action to address the mental health consequences this pandemic has brought. Under the president's direction, we are harnessing a whole-of-government approach to remove the barriers to addressing mental health and preventing suicide for Americans.

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So, who is most vulnerable and what can we do to care for them and ourselves? The PREVENTS Task Force recognizes full well that those who are on the frontlines are especially vulnerable because of the pain and suffering they are witnessing, the sheer volume of individuals they are treating, the casualties they are seeing and the weight of responsibility they are bearing.

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The Department of Veterans Affairs is expanding prevention and crisis intervention initiatives by bolstering mental health services for women. For America’s veterans, the department is broadening telehealth services; providing free mobile apps to veterans and their families; and improving access to care by providing mental health screening and treatment services through Vet Centers [vetcenter.va.gov] and readjustment counselors. The VA is identifying those who may be at risk for suicide and who may benefit from enhanced care through REACH VET, Risk ID and over-the-phone coaching.

The Department of Defense has enhanced connectedness through peer support services, interactive educational programs to teach foundational coping and problem-solving skills, and training non-medical providers on counseling strategies to promote safe storage of lethal means, such as prescriptions and firearms. The DoD is working to educate service members on recognizing and responding to warning signs on social media.

Just as we treat our physical injuries, we can learn how to care for our mental health and help those we love.

Americans who have suffered heartbreaking losses of jobs, homes or loved ones are also at risk, especially if they have already experienced prior traumas and do not have existing support. Individuals with significant mental illness or substance use disorder – and those who struggle with suicidal thoughts or impulses – are high risk as well.

But there is reason for hope. We have already seen a shift in how Americans are thinking about, and responding to, the importance of emotional well-being.

The key is for everyone to be part of the solution – we’re all in this together. All of us should care for our own emotional well-being and of those we love. And it is important to know that this may not come naturally. But just as we treat our physical injuries, we can learn how to care for our mental health and help those we love.

Every day, practice techniques to maintain emotional well-being. If you are currently in therapy, then continue by phone, telehealth or text. Share how you’re doing, what works – and what doesn’t – with family and friends.  No one should feel alone in this fight.

If you have children, talk to them about what’s going on. You don’t need to have all of the answers – listening and talking to your kids in age-appropriate ways is incredibly helpful.

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Finally, reach out with compassion and support to those who are struggling. If you are worried about yourself or someone else, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255). If you’re a military member or veteran, press 1.

This crisis will change all of us forever, but we can turn this overwhelming heartache into hope. If we change how we think about, talk about and address our mental health and well-being, we will heal our land both now and in the future.

Second Lady Karen Pence is lead ambassador of the PREVENTS Task Force. Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen is the executive director of the PREVENTS Task Force. Dr. Elizabeth Van Winkle is executive director of the Office of Force Resiliency at the Department of Defense.