By Glenn Townes
Glenn.townes@njurbannews.com

For the past few months, anxiety and depression had cold cocked him. The otherwise healthy 24-year-old New Jersey man suffered from severe panic attacks. He was anxious, nervous and constantly on edge. He lost his job and slipped into a dark and melancholic funk that was fueled by a bottle of booze. But that was just a temporary cure-all to a bigger problem. He had a nervous breakdown and spent several days in the psychiatric ward of a local hospital. While not being diagnosed with the dreaded COVID-19 virus, the man was still a victim of a pervasive pandemic that will seemingly not end.

The negative impact and the uncertainty of the pandemic continues to wreck havoc and chaos on millions of American workers—with minorities and people of color disproportionately bearing the brunt of the destruction caused by the coronavirus—both physically and mentally. According to Morneau Shepell, a national provider of mental health and digital mental health services, July marked the fourth consecutive month that feelings of isolation, stress and anxiety remained the top drivers and precipitants of depression, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts—all of which have been exacerbated by the virus.

“As COVID-19`cases continue to rise again, workers are starting to lose their early optimism on rebounding from the pandemic,” said Stephen Liptrap, president and CEO of Morneau Shepell. He added that a second and perhaps even deadlier wave of the virus could occur and the potential for a second massive shutdown is likely. To that end, workers at small and mid-sized businesses tend to suffer from mental health issues more than workers at moderate or larger corporations. “Once an organization reaches more than 50 workers, that close-knit familial sentiment felt by employees begins to strain,” said Paula Allen, senior vice president or research for Morneau Shepell. “Managers need to supervise more workers and have less time to do so,” she said.

According to the Mental Health Index (a monthly barometer facilitated by Morneau Shepell) anxiety scores worsened for most people of color in late May and through June. Liptrap said some of the increase was in response to the killing of George Floyd and the
national outrage it sparked. Contrarily, the mental health of white respondents stabilized
or showed improvement during the same time period. Additionally, the use of employer sponsored Employee Assistant Programs (EPA) offer support to stress and pandemic scarred workers, while being a cost effective measure for businesses.

Susan Weinstein, manager of the Employee Assistance Program at Penn Medicine Princeton Health in Plainsboro, NJ, said sectors that are the most impacted by substance abuse and mental health stressors include construction, hospitality, travel and tourism, retail and food service—all industries hit especially hard by the pandemic. Weinstein said employers bear some responsibility in effectively treating an employee that has shown a decrease in things such as productivity, judgment and behavior. She also said the expectation for employees to leave stress and personal issues at home is “If an employer notices any of those signs, it may indicate reason for discussion with the employee and having access to professional services,” she said.

Lastly, to view the full Mental Health Index study by Morneau Shepell, visit the organization web site at https://www.morneaushepell.com

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