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Tracking mental health in America

It’s been clear for some time that the state of mental health in the U.S. is declining, even for those of us not in healthcare fields.

We’ve seen it in the news reports, heard the celebrities telling their stories of mental illness, and watched as friends and family members struggled, sometimes briefly, others for years, with mental health challenges.

The latest statistics confirm those instincts.

The State of Mental Health in America 2021 report from Mental Health America, a community-based nonprofit, reads like a disaster scenario for a movie script.

Nearly every group studied has seen significant increases in the number of people experiencing depression, suicide ideation and other illness, and, in many cases, saw increases to the severity of these experiences too.

Youth, for example, saw an increase in mental health screening of nine percent over 2019 numbers for ages 11-17 and, since COVID-19 are also showing signs of increasing symptom severity. This age group has been the most likely to have screening results for moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety and depression since the COVID-19 pandemic began, according to MHA.

Loneliness and isolation from COVID-19 are making things worse, according to MHA data. People whose screening shows them at risk for mental health problems are struggling most with these challenges, particularly in the period from April to September when 70 percent of people who screened with moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety or depression, reported that either loneliness or isolation was one of the top three things contributing to their mental health concerns.

For Black or African American screeners, increases have been dramatic. This group has had the highest average percent change over time for anxiety and depression. Similarly, Native American screeners have had the highest average percent change over time for suicidal ideation, MHA said.

Suicide ideation has been increasing in other groups too with more people saying they’ve had thoughts of suicide or harming themselves than have ever been recorded in MHA’s screening program, started in 2014.

These are just some of the struggles MHA tracked. For an excellent synopsis of all of its findings and the full report, go here.

COVID-19 has exacerbated the situation, but mental illness was already increasing when the virus was born, so the growth can’t be seen simply as a virus-related anomaly. Going back a few years, the period of 2017 to 2018 saw 19% of adults experiencing a mental illness, a rise of 1.5 million people over the prior year’s data, according to MHA.

Although these statistics are difficult to absorb and can bring on feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, the situation is in no way hopeless.

Last year brought good news too.

What I hope, and what seems possible, is that the crisis is beginning to shed light on the state of mental health in this country and with that light will come changes and solutions.

My own experience has shown me that people are increasingly willing to share their personal experiences with mental health than they had in the past, even the more recent past.

Prior to 2020, I’d rarely had in-depth conversations with friends or family about depression, anxiety or specific mental disorders. Last year, I had many.

Some were with professionals through my work with Help & Hope Southcoast; individuals who were sharing raw, personal stories of mental illness as a way of offering hope and help to others.

Others were with friends and family who were coping with loss, isolation, depression and similar struggles and questioning out loud how to cope, get help, and feel better.

These conversations, from my perspective, show that stigma took a big hit in 2020. Hurrah, that’s certainly worth celebrating. Stigma thrives in silence and shaming but struggles to survive when people feel supported enough to share openly.

Looking ahead, 2021 seems poised to continue the forward movement. And as we talk more about mental health, we focus more time, energy, and resources on it and that holds promise for a growth in the advocacy and support needed to make the changes to turn this tide around.

Questions will remain. Big ones, like how can we take those individual conversations and create a national one that builds the momentum needed to find positive solutions? And, can we rewrite our policies and laws to keep pace as the mental health conversation changes?

But all big changes begin with small steps. I have hope we can get there.

Stay tuned for more on this topic, including tomorrow, a look at which local groups are struggling the most with mental health as seen through the eyes of mental health professionals from High Point Treatment Center, Child & Family Services, Coastline Elderly Services, the Inter-Church Council of Greater New Bedford and the Samaritans of FR/NB.

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