Community leaders are talking more and more about the state of our mental health and the long-term trauma inflicted on many by the coronavirus outbreak and the social and economic shutdown it forced.
It’s hard to gauge the coming aftershocks, but public health officials, school leaders, and elected officials know they are coming and will require extraordinary measures to minimize the lasting damage.
Expect to hear more on the subject from Mayor Ron Nirenberg when he delivers his State of the City address on June 12, although he has hinted at “making news” this week.
My own focus on the emotional well-being of the most affected San Antonians came into sharper focus last week when I moderated two online programs, the Rivard Report‘s third and final education forum of the month, and a focus on mental health organized by the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and UT Health San Antonio.
Hundreds of educators, health care workers, small-business owners, and others viewed the programs, knowing better than most, perhaps, what lies ahead. Among the 25 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, San Antonio has the highest percentage of people living in poverty. That was before the pandemic struck and wreaked social and economic havoc among the city’s most vulnerable residents.
For individuals and families whose finances are secure and employment is uninterrupted and whose children benefit from educated parents at home to help with distance learning, predictions of widespread impact on the mental health and well-being of the rest of the city might seem exaggerated. They are not.
It’s easy in the comfort of our own spacious, well-stocked homes to turn a blind eye to what so many are enduring in the moment, a reality made more difficult by the insecurity of an uncertain future.
The pandemic has laid bare the San Antonio metro area’s widespread food insecurity. Families that months ago were successfully making monthly payments on new vehicles now find themselves in long lines at the San Antonio Food Bank. Countless families are struggling with sudden unemployment, a lack of savings and health care coverage, and the looming threat of eviction from rental houses and apartments.
We now know what it means that hundreds of thousands of households in Bexar County lack at-home internet service for their school-age children to stay connected to teachers and peers. Many parents lack the education to play a confident role in meeting their own children’s distant learning needs.
Nearly 360,000 public school students experienced the sudden closure of the 543 school campuses in Bexar County, preventing them from finishing the academic year and fully preparing for the 2020-21 academic year. Graduating high school and college seniors suddenly were done, with no finish line to cross, no ceremonial recognition to mark the occasion, no peer revelry. Families were left to organize individual cap-and-gown photo ops along the San Antonio River or in front yards.
School leaders knew from the outset that students would need much more than an academic lifeline. Districts scrambled to open up neighborhood meal distribution centers and to find laptops, tablets, hotspots, and other devices for students from families without resources. Inner-city school leaders had to deploy teams to search for students who have not been heard from since the campus closures.
Long-term senior care facilities and nursing homes suspended family visitations, leaving caregivers helpless to attend aging parents and grandparents, who suffered the isolation and loneliness of people living out their time without the comforting presence of family and friends.
Medical and health care workers, among others, found themselves working long hours under urgent conditions, exposing themselves to the virus even as they struggled with the lack of day care at home and watched as colleagues at local hospitals, clinics, and medical practices were furloughed or laid off and forced to apply for unemployment.
Weddings have been postponed and long-planned vacations canceled. Adult children without job prospects have moved back in with parents. College students have lost internships. Summer jobs are scarce. Graduates seeking professional opportunities are on hold.
Heads of households continue to lose their jobs. More than 7,000 people filed for unemployment in Bexar County in the second week of May, the latest available state numbers. More than 125,000 have lost their jobs since early March. Multiply the number of dependents involved, and the truer picture of economic hardship and the emotional fallout comes into focus.
Those who work in the airline and hospitality industries face the prospect of long-term unemployment, with many jobs simply going away as hotels, restaurants, bars, and shops feel the collapse of the convention and visitor business that has helped define modern San Antonio.
Federal stimulus funds will run out this summer unless lawmakers in Washington bury their partisan hatchets and work on longer-term solutions. The bills passed so far have served to bridge the country in the opening months of the pandemic, but more will be needed to avoid catastrophic unemployment in the coming months.
San Antonio is a small business economy, but sustaining those enterprises is its own challenge. The prospect of starting up a new business, of accessing capital, of being able to launch businesses that require time to become profitable now comes with far greater risk and challenge.
Each one of us has been affected individually by the pandemic and shutdown. Many of us are resilient and have used the time and opportunity to adapt. Everyone, however, at some level has been challenged by the enormity of the global impact and how life and work all around have changed forever. Gauging one’s own well-being will be an essential part of the larger community response needed to navigate San Antonio’s future.
San Antonio’s road to recovery will require a thoughtful, well-organized citywide response that brings government, the private sector, philanthropists and foundations, and the nonprofit sector together to act in concert. That, in turn, should serve to inspire prospering citizens throughout the city and suburbs to look beyond their own families and workplaces to help in any way they can.