The Pandemic Can Pave the Way to Better Mental Health Care


The COVID-19 pandemic has strained our social fabric in so many ways. Above all, there is the loss of life, which has occurred at an unfathomable scale and is still ongoing. But in addition, with the necessary disruptions in our educational system, we’ve seen the struggles of families trying to manage childcare, and of children dealing with the isolation and loss of connection that comes with remote learning.

From my perspective as the head of a nonprofit devoted to supporting the mental health of young people, I also would add to the list the dramatic rise in mental health challenges among a whole generation of young adults.

Trends were heading in the wrong direction even before the coronavirus hit; the pandemic has just exacerbated the situation. Data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration indicates that nearly 1 in 3 young people between 18 and 25 years old had a mental illness in 2020, and that rates before then had been steadily ticking up. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a 31% increase in the proportion of mental health-related emergency department trips made by adolescents from mid-March into October of 2020 compared with the same period in 2019.

The causes are obvious to us all. There is the isolation of remote learning at home, just at the time in a young person’s life when it is most important for them to separate from their parents, socialize with peers and begin to forge their identities out in the world. And there’s the uncertainty and anxiety a high school student might feel about the health and safety of their family, often combined with economic uncertainty. It’s a long list, as we all know.

So it’s not surprising that many of our youth are suffering. If you think that your child may be, please open up the conversation with them in a very candid way, asking directly if they are feeling anxious or experiencing feelings of depression. Check in with them regularly and reach out for help yourself. I’ve talked to a lot of other parents over the last two years, and here’s what I suggest to them: Take care of yourself. Because whether you realize it or not, by modeling how you deal with stress, you are teaching your child how to deal with it as well. Self-care has never been more important.

And, of course, you must take care of your student. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done, as the need for mental health services far exceeds the numbers receiving care. The Jed Foundation, for example, has programs in colleges and high schools that reach millions of students every year. And many other great organizations are out there making a difference. Still, only around half of young people who need help for depression get it.

Why is the unmet need so large? Partly, it’s the stigma that has long been and still is associated with mental illness. This prevents people from admitting they need help, and also prevents people from starting conversations with others about mental health when they see someone who may be struggling. We don’t blame the patient for getting appendicitis. But depression? Our response tends to be quite different.

The other big factor? Just follow the money. Mental health has generally accounted for a very small share of philanthropic spending. If you look at government spending, you see similar disparities.

But – and I say this in full awareness of all the grief and pain the pandemic has caused so many of us – there is a silver lining. Yes, there is something positive that can emerge from the tragedy we have been and continue to be going through. I am optimistic that when we, hopefully soon, get to the other side of the pandemic, it will be easier for us to talk about mental health, give help and ask for help when we need it. And it will be easier for those who need help to get it.
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