The Crisis Within the Crisis

Why mental health must become a top priority

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

The list of anxiety-producing issues facing so many Americans this spring seems endless. Sudden joblessness and an extreme lack of potential job opportunities at a time when unemployment is sky high and employers are cutting back on all fronts. Health concerns. Fear of the unknown. Loss of structure. Family tensions. Lack of human contact. The inability to put food on the table. The inability to pay for medications. Loss of routine healthcare visits. Lack of childcare. Lack of dependable support systems. And grief. For a friend or family member (or more than one in many cases) felled by a mysterious disease. For the tens of thousands of Americans whose lives have been suddenly cut short in such a short period of time — and for the loved ones left behind. It’s all incredibly heartbreaking and bewildering. And for the 1 in 5 Americans of all ages with mental illness, a crisis like the one we’re collectively experiencing can lead to a very personal, painful crisis with no apparent way out.

The fact that life seems to go on for so many despite such personal pain only adds to the confusion. A year ago this month, a student at my daughter’s high school shot and killed another student, one of my daughter’s classmates in their small school’s graduating class. Even though my daughter was not at school at the time, the event traumatized her. I can only imagine what it did to the students who were in the classroom where the shooting occurred, especially those who were shot. The fact that life seemed to go back to normal for the rest of the world the very next day rattled my daughter and, I’m sure, many other students at her school. I can only imagine how alone those struggling with any of the issues caused by the coronavirus pandemic feel right now when so many seem to be weathering this storm just fine.

But are they? Across Facebook and Twitter, Americans are posting heartfelt stories about what they’re facing and how discouraged they feel. In one recent post, a mom with a teen who’d finally made progress after years of therapy for anxiety and was having a good year in school until the quarantine hit said she suddenly didn’t know how to help her daughter, who’d suffered a major setback. In another recent post, a woman said she’d started the day crying for no apparent reason, and many of her friends chimed in to say that they’d also seemed to hit a similar emotional roadblock. In early April CNN reported that calls to the Disaster Distress Helpline, a federal service offered by the Mental Health Services Administration, increased 338% between February and March. Compared to March 2019, calls this March increased by an astounding 891%.

Helpers in jeopardy

According to the National Council for Behavioral Health, a nonprofit that represents community mental health treatment providers, many of which serve low-income individuals, the community behavioral health system is at risk of collapsing without emergency federal funding. “The combination of lost revenue coupled with increased costs from staff overtime, acquiring personal protective equipment and implementing telehealth where possible is simply overwhelming many providers,” the NCBH states. At the same time, more support and guidance is needed from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services so new temporary guidelines related to providing telehealth services can be expanded to reach more patients in need. Without such support, the NCBH asserts, emergency rooms already hit hard with coronavirus cases will be inundated by individuals with mental illness who have nowhere else to turn.

Telehealth seems to be the key to providing much-needed support to anyone in need of mental health services. According to a 2019 report from management and technology firm Accenture, millennials and other young Americans had begun to influence the push toward telehealth options months before the pandemic hit. Expectations related to user-friendly, tech-centered alternatives that make it easy and convenient to meet with a healthcare provider are common among younger Americans, the report states, and even older Americans are becoming more willing to try non-traditional forms of healthcare services. Add to those tendencies a quarantine that makes many hesitant to walk into any public place for fear of contamination and the incredible increases the mental health industry is seeing in demand, and telehealth for mental health issues makes a lot of sense.

Rallying cry

The day after the shooting at my daughter’s school last year, hundreds of her classmates walked out of a community gathering that had turned into a gun control rally. These students chose to call attention to an issue that’s even bigger and more complex than gun control as they gathered outside the rally and chanted what I believe should be the rallying cry of us all: “Mental health. Mental health.” While gun control is desperately needed in the U.S., the growing mental health emergency in our country must be addressed as well. Otherwise this particular crisis brewing within our current crisis threatens to make the long-term impact of the pandemic much, much worse than it already will be.

I write fiction, poetry, and nonfiction when I’m not working as a copy editor. Author of the novel One Sister’s Song.

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Bylines in Publishers Weekly, the Syracuse (NY) Post-Standard, others. One Sister’s Song (novel). Not Nearly Everything You Need to Know About Writing (ebook).

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