The COVID-19 crisis has brought death, economic destruction, and wrenching social change. As a combination of post-illness immunity and rising vaccinations begins to suppress the pandemic, we’re going to feel a powerful impulse to put as much of this horrendous experience as possible behind us.
As well we should. But some effects of COVID aren’t going away. They represent long-term consequences, positive and negative, to which North Carolinians will have to adjust. A recent grant by the John William Pope Foundation, a Raleigh-based grantmaker for which I serve as president, will help facilitate precisely the sort of adjustment I mean.
First, though, some background. Among the negative consequences of the pandemic has been to intensify a crisis in mental health. About one in five North Carolinians suffers from at least a mild mental illness. They often don’t pursue a diagnosis of their condition, and most receive no treatment for it.
The COVID crisis — produced both by the disease itself and the effects of policy responses intended to contain it — have made the situation much worse. Many North Carolinians have become isolated, physically and psychologically, making it harder to handle the deaths of relatives or friends, the loss of jobs and businesses, and, for young people, the loss of in-person schooling.
According to the nonprofit National Alliance on Mental Illness North Carolina (NAMI-NC), rates of depression and anxiety are up as much as threefold since the pandemic began. Some of these cases will produce self-harm, even suicide. Many will produce large social and economic costs. All will produce suffering. And for many, these negative effects will long outlast the pandemic.
At the same time that COVID-19 has worsened our mental health, however, it has also accustomed many more North Carolinians to technological innovations such as telehealth, teleconferencing, and remote work that can help.
The ways our medical providers deliver health screenings, information, and treatment, for example, have been forever altered and expanded. Telehealth will continue to extend expertise and affordable care to patients who live in remote locations or are otherwise unable or unwilling to come into physical offices.
Now consider the implications of working from home. Even after vaccination is widespread, some employers and employees are going to stick with an arrangement that, perhaps to their surprise, has proved to be not only flexible and economical but also a boost to productivity. According to some studies, we may see a permanent doubling or tripling of work-at-home rates. For some North Carolinians with mental illnesses, this option could be a godsend.
Adjusting to these changes won’t be easy, however. While producing significant gains in the long run, they’ll require expenditures of time and money in the short run. They’ll require thinking about problems in a different way, and trying out a variety of solutions.
When my colleagues and I at the John William Pope Foundation created our Joy Pope Memorial Grant program some years ago, one of our goals was to encourage this kind of innovative thinking. Every year the program awards up to $100,000 to nonprofits delivering human services in North Carolina, plus a similar amount to arts and cultural organizations in our state.
NAMI-NC is one of our Pope Memorial Grant recipients for 2021. Our $50,000 award will allow the nonprofit to create a state-of-the-art media center. This will make possible a variety of new services and functions, such as advising patients and their families on how to access medical care, hosting support groups by smart phone for North Carolinians who wouldn’t otherwise seek help, and organizing health providers and educators to respond effectively to rising suicide rates among our youth.
North Carolina has a rich ecosystem of nonprofits that treat the sick, train the jobless, feed and clothe the destitute, shelter the homeless, and comfort the forlorn. The past year has both strained their capacity and proved their worth. Many are now “going the distance,” investing in new technologies and facilities to meet post-COVID needs. Donors and volunteers should come alongside to help.
John Hood is president of the Pope Foundation and author of the forthcoming novel Mountain Folk, a historical fantasy set during the American Revolution.