Mental health care data collected by the state shows the number of people in crisis has roughly doubled compared to last year’s reported numbers, according to a Vermont Public Radio story this week.

Although not unexpected, it is cause for alarm. Not only does the massive increase stress the mental health care system staff-wise, it unmasks the obvious; there are a lot of Vermonters who are hurting and who do not have access to any meaningful help. And it’s getting worse.

There is also every reason to believe the problem will get worse before it gets better, according to the experts. Increased levels of anxiety and depression are a part of life in the midst of this pandemic and they are not easily overcome. The anxiety of a lost job is something that troubles the best of minds, let alone those with lower trigger levels. Social isolation is a challenge to us all; we’re social creatures and it’s abnormal to be housebound. For parents who must work from home and make sure their children are doing their school work, the pressure often becomes unmanageable. For parents who can’t work from home, and who cannot find, or afford, the care necessary for their children, the stress becomes acute. For children who need to be in school, being denied that option can have long-term effects.

And all of this is looking backward. The state’s caseload continues to rise at disturbingly high levels and winter has yet to hit. If the pandemic produces a second wave that is anywhere close to the first, we may see another six-to-12 months of economic and social contraction. The experts think the aftershocks of the pandemic will put us in a mental health crisis for the foreseeable future, which makes sense. Broken bones are more easily mended than troubled minds.

If there is any hope to be taken from the increase in our mental health challenges it’s that the pandemic has forced us to truly think about what is most important in our lives, that being the general state of our well-being. In fact, the main health care consideration that has come from the pandemic is not catching the virus itself, it’s our behaviors, it’s what the virus has forced upon us and how we have responded. It’s the cocktail of all imposed changes forced by a single virus and the unknowable future it has produced.

People are moving to Vermont — on purpose — because it’s safe, it’s healthy, and it has few of the afflictions they associate with larger populations. We need to apply that same sense of awareness and empathy to those around us and to the mental health professionals whose task it is to bring comfort and assistance to those who struggle with the world’s stresses.

We are being told that one of the things the pandemic will leave behind is a legacy of dashed hopes and simmering levels of anxiety and depression. These challenges will be every bit as formidable as any we consider with our traditional health care system and they need to be met with equal resources.

Odd, isn’t it? That a virus thought to be respiratory in nature turns out to be a threat to our peace of mind? But it is. In the long term, how we respond will tell us more about ourselves than any vaccine.

by Emerson Lynn

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