APhA coronavirus watch: Pharmacists’ role in mental health expands during COVID-19 

The fragility of our mental health has never been more exposed than during the COVID-19 pandemic. Crisis hotlines have seen enormous spikes in call volumes. According to an analysis by Express Scripts, prescriptions jumped 34.1% for antianxiety medications and 18.6% for antidepressants between February 16 and March 15.   

For pharmacists, the toll on patients’ mental health has been a shapeshifting experience.   

Deemed essential businesses, patients have been coming into pharmacies during the COVID-19 pandemic. A May survey from Alliance of Community Health Plan found that 49% of respondents said they felt “very comfortable” picking up prescriptions at their pharmacy and speaking with a pharmacist. A lack of access to physicians during this time has also led patients to rely more on their pharmacist.

“People are calling and wanting information,” said Clark Bishop, PharmD, a partner and pharmacist manager at Hutton Pharmacy in Blackwell, OK.   

Clark has noticed elevated levels of anxiety in patients. He said one of the best things they’ve been able to do is manage patients’ fear by providing accurate information and being an honest, reliable voice of reason.   

Talia Puzantian, PharmD, BCPP, professor of clinical sciences at Keck Graduate Institute in Claremont, CA, said she tells pharmacists and student pharmacists that worry and anxiety are typical reactions to these circumstances. The key is understanding when a patient’s anxiety is normal and when it requires a referral. If anxiety is preventing a patient from doing essential duties, such as taking care of loved ones or oneself, a referral is likely necessary, Puzantian said.   

Puzantian has been training pharmacists all over the country in Mental Health First Aid. She said this training technique raises awareness, reduces stigma, and gives pharmacists the vocabulary and confidence to help.   

The baseline of Mental Health First Aid training is understanding the signs and symptoms of mental illness and addiction and learning how to help someone in distress. The trainee is given tools to be able to identify when an individual is experiencing a mental health issue or crisis, and to start the intervention process, which includes referring out to help.  Mental Health First Aid was originally created in Australia and came to the United States about a decade ago with help from the National Council for Behavioral Health.   

Although pharmacy-specific courses are available within the training curriculum, anyone can be trained in Mental Health First Aid—they do not have to be a professional.  

Due to the increased demand for mental health resources during the COVID-19 pandemic, Walgreens announced in May that it completed the first phase of training all the company’s health outcomes pharmacists in Mental Health First Aid.   

Walgreens said Mental Health First Aid will become available to any pharmacist industry-wide this summer, along with the opportunity to earn continuing education credits through APhA.   

The National Community Pharmacists Association offers credit to pharmacists who complete Mental Health First Aid training, regardless if it’s taught by a pharmacist or other community member.   

The National Council for Behavioral Health announced they will have a virtual Mental Health First Aid course available where trainees complete a 2-hour, self-paced class, and then participate in a 4-hour, instructor-led class using videoconferencing technology. More information can be found at mentalhealthfirstaid.org.

For the full article, please visit www.pharmacytoday.org for the August 2020 issue of Pharmacy Today.