April 15, 2021

COVID-19 has made it easier to talk about mental health

A mental health expert discusses how our collective experience of loss and grief has fostered open, authentic conversations about mental health and wellness.

No one should feel ashamed about seeking treatment for mental health challenges, and yet negative views of mental health conditions still exist. Stigma is the largest obstacle to recovery, treatment, and societal acceptance for people living with mental health conditions. Juan-Carlos Zuberbuhler, MD, a psychiatrist with Kaiser Permanente who is passionate about helping people understand and prioritize emotional well-being, talks about the effect the COVID-19 pandemic has had on mental health, and about the ongoing challenges of the stigma surrounding it.

What impact has the pandemic had on the stigma surrounding mental health?

Since everyone has been impacted by COVID-19, mental health and loss and grief are now a part of the national conversation unlike any other time since I started practicing medicine. I think it’s a really good thing that we’re developing a language to speak about death and loss as a normal part of life, because when there’s a collective sharing of grief, it destigmatizes it it’s easier for people to feel like they’re not alone. This helps us share and honor each other’s losses, take care of each other, and appreciate each other more.

How has the pandemic affected mental health in the communities of color you work with?

A unique thing about this pandemic is that it’s hitting at the same time the country is becoming more aware of the structural racism embedded in many of our policies and institutions. The stress of the pandemic is being added to an already disenfranchised and burdened community. So, it’s taking a heavy toll.

But there have been bright spots. The increased use of telehealth during the pandemic has proved to be an incredibly positive thing. Virtual visits and telephone appointments have become very powerful ways to improve access to treatment, particularly for communities of color.

I would also say that our communities are growing from this challenge. In retrospect, we will look at 2020 and 2021 as a time when we rose to the occasion and accomplished a lot of very difficult things.

What specific challenges concerning mental health stigma do communities of color face?

Research shows that Latinos are less likely than other ethnic groups to seek mental health treatment when compared to the rest of the population. Cultural perspectives toward mental health are a very complicated systemic and structural issue, and this certainly isn’t new with the pandemic. We often see a lot of pride in independence and hard work within the Latino community and other communities of color. Along with that, there’s often a certain amount of shame about asking for help, especially related to mental health. Many feel they have to lift themselves up on their own. But learning to be vulnerable within your community is actually what promotes resilience and growth.

What would you like to change about people’s perception of mental health?

Many people think mental health is about getting rid of uncomfortable emotional experiences, such as anxiety, anger, depression, or sadness. But it isn’t about getting rid of these feelings it’s about changing our relationship with them.

I think we need to be more deliberate in learning how to foster positive emotions and how to build resilience and grit. Rather than focusing only on negative emotions, try measuring your resiliency. You may be surprised how much more capacity you have to bounce back from stressful situations due to the challenges of the past year.

Learn more about mental health at Kaiser Permanente.