Al­len­town on list of cities at risk of men­tal health is­sues

Re­port aims to iden­tify places where de­pres­sion, COVID-19 vul­ner­a­bil­ity over­lap

The Morning Call - - Front Page - By Bethany Ao

Cam­den, Al­len­town and Read­ing have been iden­ti­fied as cities where COVID-19 vul­ner­a­bil­ity and poor men­tal health over­lap, ac­cord­ing to a re­port pub­lished this month by Men­tal Health Amer­ica and the Surgo Foun­da­tion, a health non­profit fo­cused on data science.

Wors­en­ing men­tal health due to COVID-19 has be­come an area of se­ri­ous con­cern to health of­fi­cials. Are­cent re­port by the U.S. Cen­ters of Dis­ease Con­trol and Preven­tion found that 40% of Americans sur­veyed said they strug­gled with at least one ad­verse men­tal health con­di­tion dur­ing the pan­demic. Symp­toms of de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety were the most com­monly re­ported.

The re­port aims to iden­tify cities and ge­o­graph­i­cal ar­eas that had a high preva­lence of poor men­tal health be­fore the pan­demic, ac­cord­ing to CDC data, and there­fore are more likely to be neg­a­tively af­fected by the stresses of COVID-19. In Cam­den, the re­port found that 84% of res­i­dents live in “highly COVID-vul­ner­a­ble neigh­bor­hoods” with high rates of poor men­tal health. In Read­ing and Al­len­town, those per­cent­ages were 78% and 61%, re­spec­tively. Other cities high­lighted in the re­port in­clude Detroit; Tren­ton, New Jersey; and Syra­cuse, New York.

“The cities don’t have a ton in com­mon, but there is a lit­tle bit of a con­cen­tra­tion in the Rust Belt,” said Chris­tine Campig­otto, the Surgo pro­gram man­ager wholed the anal­y­sis. “A lot of that con­cen­tra­tion is driven by poor men­tal health rates in quite a few cities in NewJersey, Penn­syl­va­nia, and up­state NewYork. But it’s im­por­tant to note that this doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean that th­ese cities will have higher case rates and death rates, or that the virus it­self would spread more quickly in those com­mu­ni­ties.”

The re­port an­a­lyzed data from the COVID-19 Com­mu­nity Vul­ner­a­bil­ity In­dex, a tool de­vel­oped by Surgo to iden­tify com­mu­ni­ties that are less likely to over­come a coro­n­avirus out­break due to poor so­cioe­co­nomic and health fac­tors. The CCVI is modeled on the CDC’s So­cial Vul­ner­a­bil­ity In­dex, which ag­gre­gates fac­tors — so­cioe­co­nomic sta­tus; house­hold com­po­si­tion; dis­abil­ity; plus lan­guage

and mi­nor­ity sta­tus and hous­ing type — to de­ter­mine which pop­u­la­tions are most at risk dur­ing a pub­lic health cri­sis. Surgo re­searchers added two fac­tors spe­cific to COVID-19 risk.

“The first theme weadded was a num­ber of in­di­ca­tors around epi­demi­o­log­i­cal vul­ner­a­bil­ity, things like un­der­ly­ing chronic con­di­tions that are co­mor­bidi­ties with COVID-19, such as obe­sity, or places where there are high an­nual deaths from the sea­sonal flu,” Campig­otto said. “The sec­ond theme in­volved ac­cess and health care sys­tems, so this in­cluded data on how much money is spent per per­son in health care, the num­ber of ICU beds, and health in­sur­ance rates.”

The data from the CCVI was then com­bined with data from Men­tal Health Amer­ica’s na­tional rank­ings on how much ac­cess to men­tal health care ex­ists in a state to de­ter­mine the cities that were the most vul­ner­a­ble.

Theresa Nguyen, pro­gram of­fi­cer and vice pres­i­dent of re­search and in­no­va­tion at Men­tal Health Amer­ica, said, “In­sur­ance and the short­age of providers are the two largest bar­ri­ers.”

“We of­ten see that peo­ple want men­tal health care, but they can’t ac­cess it. It’s not stigma. It’s not nec­es­sar­ily fear,” Nguyen said. “The in­fras­truc­ture ei­ther doesn’t ex­ist, or if it does ex­ist, it’s so chal­leng­ing to nav­i­gate that peo­ple choose not to.”

In Penn­syl­va­nia alone, more than 1.7 mil­lion peo­ple live in ar­eas with a short­age of men­tal health care providers, ac­cord­ing to KFF, a health-pol­icy non­profit. The As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­i­can Med­i­cal Col­leges also es­ti­mates that the United States may be fac­ing a short­age of up to 15,600 psy­chi­a­trists by 2025.

One way to ad­dress this prob­lem would be to build up the work­force in men­tal health by in­cen­tiviz­ing a pipe­line, Nguyen said.

“We need more fund­ing to help peo­ple choose to go into men­tal health as a grow­ing field,” she said.

“From a pol­icy per­spec­tive, we need to look at the re­im­burse­ment rate for men­tal health ser­vices and make sure they’re on par with phys­i­cal health. Our prob­lem right now is that there’s so much need and so few providers, and be­cause in­sur­ance com­pa­nies don’t in­cen­tivize peo­ple to take in­sur­ance, we lose out ac­cess.”

Campig­otto stressed that the re­port was not a pre­dic­tion of an un­avoid­able men­tal health cri­sis.

“This is not a fore­gone con­clu­sion, by any means,” she said. “If we take care to slow the spread of the pan­demic in the first place and im­prove ac­cess to men­tal health care be­cause we ac­knowl­edge that there will be a pe­riod of grief and difficulty for peo­ple for years to come, there’s still a lot we can do to pre­vent this.”

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