There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has put people in difficult situations. From people losing their jobs to students having to adjust to online learning many people have and continue to struggle. Now this collective increase in stress is poised to culminate into what many call the next wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, a mental health pandemic.
In many ways, this “second wave” is already here. The most prominent example is seen in teenagers who are struggling with distance learning. For many, it’s difficult to stay engaged in the classroom and a lack of social support, in the form of peer relationships, has resulted in youth feeling isolated. It is because of this that we have seen increases in hospitalizations for youth with anxiety and suicidal behaviors.
To some degree, this is to be expected. Adolescence is a vital time for youth to build social relationships. In addition, when kids are teenagers, they are often in the process of forming their own social identities. This issue is further exacerbated by systemic inequities which put vulnerable populations at higher risk.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, there was talk of the “digital divide” and its effects on socially distanced learning and work. This divide was in reference to the fact that internet access was unequal among families. As one Vox article pointed out, this disparity is most pronounced for low-income families and families of color. While the city has taken some measures to address the issue, such as the distribution of iPads, for those without the means to access technology, schooling continues to be difficult.
Socioeconomic conditions have always been tied to mental health outcomes in the United States. ThriveNYC, a department dedicated to mental health care in New York City, illustrates this visually in their Data Dashboard. The tool allows the user the ability to map the various social factors present in NYC and compare them to prevalence rates of depression in NYC. The tool shows that there are high rates of depression in areas with high poverty, high rent burden, and high unemployment as well as areas hardest hit by COVID-19.
The Data Dashboard also shows the extent to which racial disparities exist in terms of access to care. In NYC, Black, Latinx, and Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) are less likely than Whites to be connected to mental health care. Whites are 58.3% likely to be connected to mental health care. Comparatively, Latinx and AAPI individuals are nearly ⅔ as likely and Blacks are nearly half as likely to be connected to mental health care.
Together, the digital divide and Data Dashboard depict the perpetual disadvantage that people of color face in mental health outcomes and in accessing services. However, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
The Door NYC is one example of that. They are a non-profit social services organization in NYC that serve youth ages 12-24. The organization provides an array of supports for youth ranging from education/employment searches, legal services, housing services, and mental health services. Their holistic approach to understanding youth lets them address the multifaceted nature of mental health that is intertwined with socioeconomic conditions. Through the Door NYC, youth may receive assistance looking for a job, thus relieving unemployment stress while also addressing mental health struggles.
Another program that has potential to curb the mental health pandemic is the Connections 2 Care (C2C) initiative launched by ThriveNYC in 2016. The program attempts to address mental health concerns by training non-profit members to respond to the mental health needs of their members. In this way, when an individual looks to a non-profit organization for housing services, members of the organization would be able to address the mental health needs of the individual.
However, to fully address the complexity of mental health it is important that discussions of mental health and socioeconomic disparities are sustained. Through sustained conversations, we will be able to continue addressing the socioeconomic factors that influence mental health. By doing so, we can ensure that those who are most vulnerable get the help they need.
Jose Menjivar is a Clinical Psychology, Sociology, and Public Policy major at Hunter College. Jose is interested in examining mental health through a socio-environmental and socio-political context. He is interested in pursuing a Ph.D. in Clinical-Community Psychology. In doing so, he hopes to focus his career doing mental health research that gives voice to the community and informs policy.