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COVID-19, The Vaccines, And Mental Illness

In the days after legendary Soundgarden and Audioslave frontman Chris Cornell committed suicide in May 2017, many fans and pundits could not believe what had happened. They were not only coming to terms with never again hearing the legend’s mellifluous voice in a live venue, but they were also having a hard time understanding why a man with so much to live for would deliberately cut his life short. 

Several weeks after Cornell’s death, Howard Stern and others challenged the notion that this superstar would have committed suicide. Stern and others argued that a guy with such good looks, talent, money and loving family had a lot to live for and would never kill himself. 

After hearing Stern’s comment, I realized how little our news sources and entertainment networks know about mental illness. If you talk to people who suffer from anxiety and depression, many of them will tell you their condition is not related to how much or who they have in their life. It is often the result of a chemical imbalance—not a byproduct of insufficient love or resources. This concept can help shed light on the impact of COVID on people living with mental illness. 

The Vaccine and Its Beneficiaries

The weeks since the FDA approved the Pfizer PFE and Moderna vaccines have revealed that our government is picking up where Howard Stern left off. The formula for prioritizing patients to receive the first dosages of the vaccine has focused on senior citizens as well as workers on the front lines, such as the doctors, grocery store clerks, and K-12 teachers who are integral to the daily survival of our economy and society. 

One group is noticeably absent from the list: people with mental health problems. Although a simple Google search of “mental health” and “coronavirus vaccine” reveals several hits, many of these articles make the wrong connections, focusing on how people living with mental illness are more likely to contract COVID because they have “life circumstances that place them a higher risk for living in crowded hospitals or residences, or even in prisons.” While I don’t dispute this, the writers of these articles are missing the main point. 


The Mentally Ill and Cabin Fever

We need to pay attention to the rising number of people who did not have the virus but died indirectly as a result of it. While several pundits have made the connection between mental illness and rising incidents of suicide during COVID, the conversation has not compelled folks to put people living with mental illness among the first recipients of the vaccines. 

People with anxiety disorders fear one thing more than any other: uncertainty. Being forced to adopt a new routine with little exposure to other people only enhances such uncertainty and could account for the surging number of suicides, cutting episodes, and other acts of self harm. People with preexisting mental illnesses are significantly more likely than those without to harm themselves due to cabin fever. 

For these reasons, people who have been diagnosed with mental illness should be among the groups of people who receive the vaccine first. We need to worry equally for the cautious people staying at home as we do for those compelled to go out into the public. As folks with mental illness receive their second shot, they will be able to return to something closer to normalcy and reduce uncertainty. 

Enforcing the Qualifying Process

To regulate the qualifying process, we would have to rely on the professional diagnoses of psychiatry experts.

As will every rule, there will be loopholes. Some people will game the system and have their mental health professional friends write a fake diagnosis on their behalf. Does that mean we shouldn’t implement a process that is likely to help more people than it hurts? We can’t delay providing help to the countless people with mental illness locked in their homes.

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