July 12, 2021 at 5:00 am ET
While there is reason to be cautiously optimistic that the worst of the coronavirus pandemic is behind us, our nation is facing yet another public health crisis: a surge in mental health issues experienced by people who deferred or lacked access to regular care during the pandemic.
The good news is that some of the lessons of the pandemic can help hospitals, mental health professionals and the public prepare for a wave of new cases.
Specifically, the same science-based tools used to inform health care providers, elected officials and the American people about which populations and communities are most vulnerable to the virus can also be deployed to raise awareness about the populations that might be at greater risk of experiencing anxiety, depression and other mental health challenges in the coming months.
Such risk-mapping tools will show policymakers and health networks where, exactly, additional resources – such as available therapists – are needed and empower individuals to take measures to promote their own mental well-being.
But as we learned during the pandemic, getting this information out now will be key – especially if we are to ensure that traditionally underserved communities have the support they need. That’s why we need to move fast to build an early warning system.
After a year of uncertainty, social isolation and, for many, the death of loved ones, we are already seeing signs that many Americans are struggling to deal with these stresses. More than 4 in 10 adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorders last December, according to a survey conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics — nearly four times as many as at that point in 2019.
In underserved communities, the mental health toll is even worse. Black and brown Americans – who even before COVID-19 were 20 percent more likely to experience a mental health issue – make up a disproportionate number of front-line workers and were forced to worry about potentially bringing the virus home and endangering loved ones.
A central part of the solution for combating this growing crisis should be to turn to the same risk-mapping tools that provided the nation a clear sense of which populations carry the greatest risk of ending up hospitalized, in an ICU bed or worse if exposed to the virus.
The model that proved most effective for that purpose was built on two pillars: anonymized clinical data to flag communities with large populations of people with specific underlying health conditions and social determinants of health factors to pinpoint communities with environmental stressors such as limited access to fresh groceries.
This same proactive approach can be used to get in front of the looming mental health crisis. To take one example, using anonymized clinical data, we can identify communities where a higher number of children had a parent experience severe health complications during the pandemic. Additionally, we can use SDOH factors that might correspond with mental health, such as certain economic conditions.
Beyond this early warning system, we can also use a science and data-based approach to best support patients after they have experienced a mental health problem. It’s clear by now that telemedicine technology can dramatically expand access. But we can even go a step further in modernizing care by using tools like AI that, with a patient’s explicit permission, could analyze subtle auditory and visual markers of distress that might otherwise go undetected by a therapist.
COVID-19 has taught us valuable lessons for our future beyond the pandemic. But with the next health care crisis on the horizon, we must take what we’ve learned about the power of science and data and apply it to the rising mental health emergency at our doorstep.
Gary Velasquez is the co-founder and CEO of Cogitativo, a data science company. Ed Ikeguchi, M.D., is the CEO of AiCure, an AI and data analytics company.
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