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Mental health challenge amid coronavirus is 'a crisis on top of a crisis': American Medical Association President

Blaring ambulances and shuttered stores make visible the illness and economic pain caused by the novel coronavirus, but the widespread mental anguish takes place out of sight.

In a newly released interview, American Medical Association President Patrice Harris says that the coronavirus outbreak has exacerbated mental health challenges nationwide that predated the uncertainty and self-isolation that have accompanied the pandemic, calling the already-difficult situation made worse a “crisis on top of a crisis.”

‘We were having an increase of adolescents and adults who were experiencing anxiety. I have seen an increase in, unfortunately, the number of suicides and suicide attempts in adolescence,” she says. “That was pre-COVID.”

“Now we have this crisis, which actually makes us all anxious and worried and fearful. So we have now a crisis on top of a crisis,” says Harris, the first African-American woman to serve as president of the AMA, a position she has held since last June.

Almost half of Americans say the coronavirus crisis is hurting their mental health, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted in late March. The pandemic “has the seeds of a major mental health crisis,” the United Nations said earlier this month.

In March, when the outbreak became widely known in the U.S., many states and localities began instituting stay-at-home orders. In all, 316 million people in at least 42 states were being urged to stay home by local or state orders by mid-April, the New York Times reported.

While all states have now begun to reopen, many measures barring restaurant operation and other precautions remain in effect.

Harris said the restrictions have shut people off from support networks that would otherwise help ease the uncertainty and fear caused by the pandemic.

“In order for us to be safe, isolating, we're seeing increased feelings of loneliness,” she says. “We are seeing increased anxiety, feelings of loneliness and isolation that were already on top of a pre-COVID crisis.”

Harris made the comments during a special called “Reset Your Mindset at Work,” a partnership between Yahoo! and Fortune that aired on May 27. The segment on mental health amid the pandemic, moderated by Yahoo Finance Editor-in-Chief Andy Serwer, featured Harris as well as Mindy Grossman, CEO of WW (WW), formerly known as Weight Watchers.

As a result of the spike in mental health needs, counseling hotlines nationwide have seen an uptick in calls. The Disaster Distress Helpline, a crisis hotline overseen by the federal government, has experienced a spike in calls. The group reported an 891% increase in calls in March, compared to the same month last year, CNN found.

(From left to right) American Medical Association President Patrice Harris, Yahoo Finance Editor-in-Chief Andy Serwer, and WW CEO Mindy Grossman appear on "Reset Your Mindset at Work," a special made in partnership between Yahoo! and Fortune.

WW, which offers physical and mental wellness support for members, suddenly shifted tens of thousands of in-person gatherings to virtual sessions, Grossman said.

“When we identified what was happening with COVID, we made a very quick pivot, because we had to pause all of our physical studios around the world, where we had 30,000 workshops a week,” she says. “In six days, we trained 14,000 coaches and guides, and simultaneously in 12 countries launched all those workshops virtually.”

“One of the things that was so important to us, was ensuring that not only could we support the safety and security,” she says. “But that we could keep the community together for motivation and support in a time of isolation.”

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