The COVID-19 pandemic has placed new stresses on many Americans, including those living in community associations. Managers and board members are addressing increased demands from homeowners while keeping up with their personal lives, while residents are often balancing work from home, remote learning for their children, and other challenges.
“We are mentally and emotionally taxed,” says Matt D. Ober, partner at Richardson|Ober|DeNichilo in Pasadena, Calif., and a fellow in CAI’s College of Community Associations Lawyers (CCAL). “Mental health issues aren’t new to community associations, but the pandemic has heightened these feelings and behaviors. It has become overwhelming for many managers and board members.”
It’s no surprise that mental health issues are on the rise across the U.S. According to community-based nonprofit Mental Health America, 19% of adults experienced a mental illness even before the pandemic, and 24% of those adults report an unmet need for treatment. More specifically, the U.S. Census Bureau found that 48% of adults ages 25-49 report feeling anxiety and/or depression during COVID-19.
What is the role of community associations in addressing mental health concerns and emotional distress?
Community provides many elements that are critical to mental health, says Ober. “We need to help foster a sense of belonging, offer support, and provide purpose. Community managers and board members need to manage expectations in times of crisis by frequently communicating with residents through email, website, or newsletter.”
It’s also important to address the negative perception around mental health issues, since few people want to admit that they feel depressed or anxious, notes James R. McCormick Jr., partner at Delphi Law Group in Carlsbad, Calif., and a CCAL fellow.
Board members and managers also may want to be aware of behaviors such as shouting at others, making threats, trespassing, property damage, or hoarding, which could be signs of more serious mental health issues, explains Melissa B. Ward, an attorney at Hughes Gill Cochrane Tinetti in Walnut Creek, Calif.
However, McCormick warns that while it’s illegal to hurt people or damage property, having a mental illness is not. “We can’t always identify a mentally ill person by looking at them. We can’t make assumptions.”
Community association leaders can take proactive measures to offer mental health support to residents. Ward recommends the following:
- Become familiar with local organizations or agencies that provide support services available to residents. Publish the information on the community’s website or in the common areas.
- Create an emergency response plan that takes into account the needs of residents with physical or mental health diagnoses (if they have been disclosed to the association), including calling for medical intervention when necessary.
- Avoid offering assistance or services directly to a resident in your capacity as a board member or manager, as it may expose the association to liability by inadvertently putting you in a caregiver role. Instead, provide residents information on where they can seek out help, if needed.
During these unprecedented times, it’s crucial for association boards and managers to create an environment where residents feel supported, especially when it comes to mental health issues.
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