By: Amber O’Brien
Amber O’Brien is earning her master’s degree in Psychological Science at Texas Woman’s University, researching biological and social factors of anxiety and depression, with an emphasis on health inequities.
Mental health is threatened by the ongoing pandemic, and many may be facing anxiety and depression for the first time. According to the World Health Organization, before the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately four percent of the population suffered from depression and anxiety. Recent research indicates that since the Covid-19 pandemic, there have been sharp increases in depression, now affecting 33.7% of the population while anxiety continues to affect 31.9%.
With this drastic rise in anxiety and depression, access to mental health resources is critical to the well-being of citizens. Yet, many of the at-risk communities are the same ones who suffer from lack of access to resources due to inadequate broadband connectivity.
Equality in digital access cannot wait. The unfavorable conditions that COVID-19 is leaving in its wake–unemployment, loss of social connectedness, loss of health and even the loss of loved ones–are risk factors to mental health. Low socioeconomic status and health disparities can put a strain on psychological resources, putting individuals in certain communities at greater risk of developing depression and anxiety. Communities that were already suffering from inequities in health and economic resources may be at increased risk. When tele-health and tele-medicine programs have increasingly become the first step in obtaining care, the most disconnected populations have limited treatment options.
Not only are these unserved and underserved communities at higher risk for anxiety and depression, but they are also being denied access to critical and potentially life-saving mental health resources. Gaining access to mental health care was already a challenge for many, with barriers including cost, mental health literacy and geographic locations of service providers. Without adequate internet access, gaps in access to care has a disparate impact on the poor, seniors, remote populations, and people of color.
The same is true for other digital mental health resources. While lack of insurance is a barrier to receiving telehealth services, there are digital mental health resources that can reach the under-insured. Resources that are designed to promote mental health literacy and provide tools for managing depression and anxiety, can help many people who may be experiencing anxiety and depression for the first time during the pandemic, and not know where to turn. However, these resources also require connectivity. Those who are unable to get online may not receive guidance on recognizing and managing mental health symptoms in preliminary stages when they are still manageable.
During this time of economic uncertainty, addressing the digital divide is a public health issue. It is vastly important to provide equal access to mental health resources. That means having a strategy to reach the most disconnected populations.
As long as millions of Americans struggle with access to affordable reliable broadband, those unserved and underserved communities will miss out on essential mental health resources such as telehealth services, educational materials that promote mental health literacy, and digital tools for managing anxiety and depression. These tools have the potential to provide comprehensive mental health care treatment, and support the overall well-being of a community and its residents.
When depression and anxiety are ranked among the highest causes of disability, revitalizing cities in the wake of COVID-19 will depend on the well-being of its own citizens. Supporting the well-being of all people is critical for a national COVID-19 recovery plan and recharging local economies. That undertaking includes providing equal access to digital mental health resources. Expanding broadband access for vulnerable and at-risk populations can help address wide gaps in wellness.