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Editor's note: Mental Health Awareness Month is recognized in May each year. Columns throughout the month will highlight important mental health topics through a local partnership with Anne Marie Project, Capital Region Medical Center, Compass Health Network, St. Mary's Hospital and United Way of Central Missouri.

Mental Health Awareness Month is recognized in May every year and is our opportunity to fight the stigma, provide support and advocate for those battling mental illness.

And with the rippling effects of COVID-19 continuing, this critical effort is as important as ever.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit our nation like a tsunami, mental health was a serious issue, with about 20 percent reporting some kind of mental illness, and almost 11 million having a mental illness serious enough to impair their functioning. Depression and anxiety were already at a high water mark, with 20 million Americans having a depressive episode and almost a third of adults reporting frequent and persistent feelings of worry and anxiety. Additionally, we were in the midst of an epidemic of opioid use and overdose deaths, and a persistent rise in suicide that resulted in more than 48,000 deaths in a year.

Given this troubling pre-pandemic picture, it's easy to see why those of us in the behavioral health community are very concerned about the impact of uncertainty, fear, stress and economic downturn on those who may already be vulnerable to mental illness or substance use disorders. We are seeing tangible evidence of this impact, with alcohol sales skyrocketing by 300 percent between January and March of this year, and nearly half of American adults reporting that the stress and worry over the coronavirus have had a significant negative effect on their mental health.

The plain fact is, whether we have pre-existing mental health problems or not, as the pandemic and its aftermath wear on, many people will need treatment, support and other wellness strategies in order to deal with it effectively.

The realities of COVID-19 have required Compass Health Network to improvise, adapt and overcome with breathtaking speed in order to find ways and means of providing the care people need. It has felt akin to turning an aircraft carrier on a dime as we have retooled our behavioral health services so that they can be delivered virtually by phone or video apps, for example. We are providing near daily online support, therapy by televideo and virtual psychiatry services to thousands of clients with mental health challenges to help them stay as healthy and stable as possible in the midst of all the current difficulty and uncertainty.

We have created methods by which we can do effective virtual substance use assessments and provide supportive treatment services for substance use disorders online. We have used our social media and other platforms to inspire hope and promote wellness, including a podcast series applying evidence-based psychology to many of the challenges presented to us psychologically by the pandemic, ranging from complicated grief to relationship hygiene to learning optimism in the face of challenges. You can find them at compasshealthnetwork.org.

Compass and the behavioral health community are here to serve, so please don't let the realities of the COVID-19 crisis keep you from getting the care you need right now.

Finally, lots of recommended strategies exist for maximizing our mental health in this difficult time, but perhaps the most important centers on finding and maintaining our social and personal connections. Fortunately, we live in an era where we can often bring all of our "offline" supports online and help fight off the negative health effects of social isolation and loneliness.

It is a good idea to simply identify a reasonable number of your most important supports, including family, friends, health care professionals, therapists and so forth, and develop a plan to stay in touch regularly. You can use Zoom, FaceTime or just good old-fashioned phone calls to connect, but just make sure to do it regularly. Did you know there is even an app now that allows you to sync up your Netflix with others and have socially distanced binge watching party?

Remember, there is real medicine in being together, even virtually.

Paul Thomlinson, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Compass Health Research Institute.

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