Mental Health Inequities

What is the Future of Mental Health Post COVID-19? Experts Share Insights on Post-Pandemic Mental Health Inequities

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Mental health experts recently shared insight on the possible long-term effects of COVID-19 once the pandemic is over.

The virtual discussion, titled “COVID-19 Social Inequities’ Impact on Mental Health,” is the third of a four-part series created by The Gay Johnson McDougall Center for Global Diversity and Inclusion at Agnes Scott College.

Featured panelists include Joëlle Atere-Roberts ’14, MPH, social epidemiologist at the UNC Carolina Population Center; Janelle Peifer, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Agnes Scott; and Tomiko Jenkins, LCSW, senior associate dean of students at Agnes Scott. The discussion was moderated by Sam Levan ’22, a psychology major and an art and theatre minor at Agnes Scott.

“The conversation on COVID-19’s impact on mental health is particularly relevant to us all at this moment in time,” said Lucero Aradillas, director of diversity education at Agnes Scott. “Faculty, staff, and students across the country are knee-deep in schoolwork, online teaching, and full-time jobs while taking care of the many other responsibilities at home. Our panelists recognize the immense pressure this can create and have provided us with a timely and important discussion on mental health, resources and some strategies to help alleviate some of that pressure.”

The discussion on COVID-19 and mental health issues included questions from participants and addressed the topics noted in the Q&A below.

How is COVID-19 exacerbating mental health issues?

“Stress and fear are impacting almost everyone in the world right now,” said Atere-Roberts. “And that means not only dealing with fear and concerns of your own health but the health of your loved ones and people closest to you.”

Individuals experiencing survivor’s guilt that could worsen already existing conditions, or the significant increase in news and information around the pandemic triggering mental health issues are just two examples of individual impacts of COVID-19.

“A lot of the inequities in our healthcare system and our mental healthcare system are magnified,” said Peifer. “With less access to resources, we know in mental health that prevention is always much more beneficial than intervention sometimes. So, we need to think strategically about how we are going to respond to the increases in anxiety and depression that we are already seeing.”

Even with virtual outlets, Jenkins said experts are now seeing cases of Zoom fatigue where online engagement doesn't’t fully replace face-to-face interaction for some individuals. For others, sleep disturbances, an increase or decrease in appetites, and mood swings are also on the rise.

“These are the sorts of things that we really like to watch as mental health professionals because they can lead to experiencing other mental issues if they go on for too long.”

What changes will we see in mental health after COVID-19?

“We are at a point of reckoning of having to think in revolutionary ways about how we’re going to address this concern that’s impacting us at a global level,” said Peifer, while also emphasizing the importance of global interconnectedness in how mental health will be addressed in the future.

Peifer said this is an excellent opportunity not just to highlight, but address how people with different identity factors like socioeconomic status, gender or sexual identities may be disproportionality impacted. Telehealth is one change panelists feel is moving in the right direction and hopefully here to stay.

“We are already starting to see some of the restrictions that were in place around telehealth loosened,” said Atere-Roberts. “That’s really a shift forward in where we’re going to see telehealth for those who have access. On the flip side of that, there still needs to be consideration of alternatives for people who don’t necessarily have the resources to engage in telehealth.”

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five Americans are impacted by mental health issues with treatment for communities of color at a lower rate than white communities.

“So, we have to think about what types of innovations we can put in place so that treatments are, in fact, accessible, and there’s some equity across the board in terms of how certain communities can access treatment,” said Jenkins.

“I really hope that funding will be devoted to this space, especially within the epidemiologic space,” added Atere-Roberts. “I think we’ll also start to see some collaboration across disciplines from mental health and public health professionals working together to create evidence-based research and interventions for those who will experience this COVID PTSD.”

How can people be more intentional in advocating for historically marginalized populations?

“We must have culturally tailored interventions and resources, but also it has to be trauma-informed,” said Atere-Roberts. “We should be calling out that there are levels of privilege and acting systems that are marginalizing disadvantaged groups.

The panelists agreed that it’s not just about individual behaviors around mental illnesses, but the larger systems must be addressed.

“We have to consider ways to leverage the resources that are available in those communities,” said Peifer. “This includes activism, collectivism and calling out when we see these patterns of disadvantage showing up.”

The webinar concluded with questions and answers.

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