May is Mental Health Awareness Month: There is Much to be Aware of

Written by James Curtin, Chief Business and Government Relations Officer, Acenda

Our country is facing a mental health crisis never seen, felt, or experienced by this many of our children, brothers, sisters, parents, friends, colleagues, etc. We wrote about mental health in our last blog and are doing it again today because I could argue, that there is no greater challenge than the mental health crisis in the United States. And it’s becoming clearer each and every day that we all have been affected by this pandemic and will be forever! I have not met a single person over the last two years that claims to be unaffected.

Mental Health Awareness Month has been observed in the U.S. since 1949. The purpose of Mental Health Awareness Month is to help eliminate the stigma associated with mental illness by raising awareness of mental health conditions and those who have them.

Even before the pandemic, millions of Americans were experiencing stress, trauma, anxiety, and heightened levels of depression. The pandemic significantly worsened these conditions for those already struggling, and for countless others, mental health challenges emerged. We know that specific groups have been hit extremely hard. Communities of color, healthcare workers, and frontline workers have been disproportionately impacted. According to the CDC, depression rates nationwide have more than tripled.

Mental health challenges among young people have also risen to epidemic levels as evidenced by the rate of teen suicide and emergency room visits. The CDC has reported that emergency department visits for attempted suicide among girls in 2021 increased by more than 50% compared to 2020. American Indians, Alaska Natives, black youth, and LGBTQIA+ youth also face a disproportionate risk of suicide.

Given the history of mental illness and all that has transpired since the onset of the pandemic, few will refute the fact that Mental Health Awareness Month this year takes on a new and much more heightened sense of urgency. This is not to, in any way, lessen the alarming concern mental illness has played for far too long!

We also want to recognize the importance of Children’s Mental Health Awareness week which took place May 1-7. Caring for children’s mental health could be the single most important job, we as adults can undertake now and for however long it takes. Again, this is not to treat any of these other outstanding concerns as B list items.

So what do we do and who are we?

The answer is every one of us. We’re all affected and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. The pandemic has left mental health as an indelible mark throughout society. Put another way, due to the pandemic, we are all mental health patients now.

But beyond the “we”, those we elect on the local, state, and federal levels are currently faced with an awesome responsibility to make good decisions related to resources, focus, time, and attention. And the same holds true for their staff who head departments charged with fostering human services across the country.

Do we have a plan?

I have chosen to pick a point in time in this blog to decide if we have a plan in place. The point in time is March 1, 2022, specifically the State of the Union address by President Biden. I decided on this as my starting point to carefully consider if the country is headed in the right direction when it comes to tackling the ongoing mental health crisis because this President, like none I can recall, announced a strategy to address our mental health crisis.

The plan announced is multi-faceted and comprehensive. It includes proposals for funding increases, policy changes, and regulations, addressing the effects of social media on kids, among other key elements. The plan highlights the tremendous need for children and families to access mental health care when it’s needed.

There are one billion dollars in the 2023 budget specifically to help schools hire mental health professionals. This one billion is on top of the increased funding to be passed along to schools via the America Rescue Plan. School-based youth mental health services require an unprecedented investment and this coming year might just see this kind of investment.

The federal plan also calls for insurance parity between physical and mental health. Although parity laws have been enacted for many years, true parity is not exactly how people seeking mental health care experience it. These laws need tightening up.

The plan addresses EQUITY. Finally! Ensuring equity in access to and receipt of quality care. We need to finally acknowledge and effectively intervene so that people of color and those economically disadvantaged can access quality care regardless of their zip code. Most Americans do not know that zip code is the number one determinant of life expectancy. This is a travesty.

The plan takes steps to address the criminalization of mental illnesses and the failure to ensure that people with mental illnesses can access care.

The plan funds the rollout of the national mental health suicide prevention hotline (988).

The plan funds mobile treatment responses to a mental health crisis.

The plan funds and includes favorable regulations to support the continued use of technology that began during the pandemic.

Where do we go from here?

The plan addresses workforce development with the traditional tuition forgiveness and other tuition incentives and potentially could result in new and innovative measures to attempt to sure up the workforce in the ensuing years. But do we really have time to wait for the numbers to increase to the level where the impact can be greater?

Due to the ongoing workforce crisis, and the recommended action spelled out in the plan, it’s tough to give the National response an A at this point. However, the good news is no grade needs to be issued at this point in time because there is much work to be done at the state and local levels if we will ever truly arrest this mental health crisis in America.

There is no doubt that an unprecedented amount of funding has already flowed to states via the American Rescue Plan and an unprecedented amount of funding should flow to states from the FY 23 budget.

Although more federal advocacy is always needed, advocates should turn their attention to the states they live in and work in to rally key stakeholders all with an eye on ensuring these dollars are spent directly to abate this crisis.