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Psychiatric Care | Quality & Safety | Telehealth | FAH Policy Blog Team

Mental Health During the Pandemic with Karen Johnson

Each September, the Federation of American Hospitals takes time to recognizes Suicide Awareness Month, which is even more important as our nation continues to struggle with the physical and mental effects of the pandemic. An estimated 43.7 million Americans experience a mental health issue each year, but only one in five will get the treatment or help they need. In the latest episode of Hospitals in Focus we explore how can we help those in need and what can be done to lessen the stigma on mental health issues.

For this podcast, Chip Kahn speaks with an expert in this field – Karen Johnson, Senior Vice President, Chief Clinical Officer for the Behavioral Health Division of Universal Health Services (UHS). Karen, who has been with UHS since 1999, discussed how COVID-19 has affected people’s mental health with added stressors, feelings of isolation, and lack of connectedness. She and Chip also talk about what influencers and celebrities are doing to help break the stigma surrounding these issues and what Congress is doing in the area of mental health.

The episode began with Karen saying that podcasts like this are an important,

“The first step, Chip is having the conversation, so I’m delighted to be having this with you. And the more that we talk about issues related to mental health, the better that the outcomes can be for Americans.” Karen also spoke about the rise in recent weeks of prominent people discussing mental health “To hear celebrities and elite athletes like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, and Michael Phelps – to name just a few -there are so many others who have come forward, to have them take a stand and speak to their challenges, and in some cases, their demons is really, really courageous. I applaud their statements and am confident that it’s going to lead to more and more care being provided.”

Karen went on to discuss how COVID-19 had impacted so many; “UHS conducted a survey of Americans to understand the impact of COVID in their lives. And back [in 2020] more than 68% of the individuals surveyed indicated that it was an extreme stressor for them. And the majority of the survey participants also stated that they had felt concerns about increased symptoms related to depression and anxiety.” She continued by stressing the importance of trying to stay connected during times of isolation, “20 years ago had this pandemic hit. We wouldn’t have had the benefit of all of this virtual technology, and that the key is to be intentional about that and to support those who are suffering.”

Chip and Karen also spoke about one of the hardest-hit groups during the current pandemic: children. She had some advice for parents who are worried about their kids, “I would look for and monitor for unusual behaviors and encourage honest conversations about those fears. It’s scary. It’s scary for the children. It’s equally, if not more so scary for the parents. So reaching out, and chatting and focusing on the importance of talking about and asking, ‘how are you,’ waiting for the answer, and gently continuing the conversation, even if you don’t get a response the first or the second time.”

Karen also highlighted UHS’ partnership with the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention. “[UHS has] continued our efforts on suicide reduction. Zero Suicide is a transformational framework that, has been used in other healthcare systems, and we have taken this work to a different level with focusing on care that’s provided in the inpatient psychiatric setting. And Zero Suicide is tough, those are two tough words to put together Chip. They’re aspirational, but the Zero Suicide framework provides some practical guidance for healthcare systems, as well as other community agencies to focus their efforts on transforming the systems from a leadership perspective, all the way to collecting data and understanding the data and also including the lived experience of suicide survivors, suicide attempt survivors, and those who have been impacted by suicide.”

They wrapped up the podcast by talking about the soon to be activated suicide prevention hotline number 988, or as Karen called it “one of the most exciting developments in the arena of mental health care and suicide prevention that I’ve seen in my career.” She added, “The use of 988 is going to be America’s first three-digit mental health crisis line. It is so awesome to have this be dedicated to addressing those individuals in a mental health crisis. I believe it’s going to provide more equitable access to lifesaving care, creating a better and broader safety net across the country. And right now, even though we’re waiting until July of 2022 for it to be fully implemented, if you call 988 today, you will be connected to the national suicide prevention hotline, which is an extraordinary step in the right direction.”

Listen to the full episode here