As our mental health crumbles, new data stresses the need for reform

As months of anxiety and fear fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic have taken an alarming toll on our mental health, our nation's well-being is in crisis.

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Currently, a third of Americans are showing signs of clinical anxiety or depression—these rates are as much as 200 percent higher than pre-pandemic levels—and our fractured, ineffective mental health system is not prepared. Compared to other years, Americans are experiencing greater psychological distress and loneliness now. And it is no surprise. Between protests and calls for immediate  change in how our nation addresses race to the uncertainty of COVID-19, the United States is stressed. One poll from Benenson Strategy Group found that 56 percent of American adults claimed that their mental health was negatively impacted by the pandemic. An even more recent study found that deaths of despair, or deaths related to drugs, alcohol, or suicide, could be exacerbated by COVID-19 if we do not do something immediately to help.

But most data don’t account for the ongoing, systemic racial trauma felt by black Americans  and the emotional effects of George Floyd’s death and subsequent rallies, protests, and cries for change. Despite the evidence that shows the profound negative impact police killings have on black students in America, our nation has yet to be moved to concrete action. American Academy of Pediatrics, for example, states that racism is a determinant of health that yields a lasting impact on the well-being of children, adolescents, adults, and their families. Between these seemingly daily traumas from police violence against black America to the social and emotional toll of COVID, our nation must be better prepared to address issues of mental health for all people and especially our most vulnerable communities. 

The trauma of our country’s fractured race relations and the pressure of a long-term pandemic means that  millions of Americans in need may encounter the mental health system for the first time. Most will find a system of care that is out of reach, too expensive, too far away and out of network. As rates of depression, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicides skyrocket, mental health policy remains an afterthought in our national conversation and the halls of government.

Consider the following: someone who experiences a heart attack can typically access immediate treatment. For Americans suffering severe mental health issues, though, it’s unlikely that their insurance—assuming they have it—is accepted by any care providers they’re able to find. Even if care providers accept the insurance, insurance companies will in many cases reject coverage, leaving patients no choice but to cover expensive bills out of pocket. This is just one way the system is failing us, resulting in a startling treatment gap.

Meanwhile, the CARES Act paid scant attention to escalating mental health issues wrought by the pandemic. While hospitals received $100 billion in the package, mental health services (which support suicide prevention and community clinics—the cornerstone of mental health care services) received 1/235th of that. 

The risks of further inaction are too high: the suicide, anguish, depression and pain wrought by this pandemic will cast a dark shadow over a national psyche for a generation. The do-nothing status quo will only be exacerbated by the stumbling economy. Research shows that the unemployment rate has a strong association to substance abuse and suicide.  All the while, racism continues to fan mental anguish in Black America. About one in four Black Americans will experience an anxiety disorder at some point and those symptoms last longer for Black Americans than the general population according to studies

The work to protect all Americans must begin now.

We need action. We need change. Without a comprehensive and equity focus on mental health, we will only continue to tinker at the edges. 

Our nation cannot afford this. 

That’s why we founded Inseparable, a new, bipartisan action platform working to realize a bold vision of mental health care in America where every American has access to affordable, quality treatment; where we invest in proven prevention and early intervention strategies to help children overcome traumatic pasts and have hopeful futures, and where world class research moves quickly from discovery to delivery. We will galvanize a national voice to demand that the health of our minds no longer be separated from the health of our bodies. Health is health, and it’s time we stop treating mental health policy as an afterthought.

Congress should immediately fund local mental health providers and organizations dealing with an overwhelming demand for services, not keep funneling money to large, for-profit hospitals. They should also make access to telehealth services like therapy permanent and fully covered by all insurance providers, and dramatically increase investment in a diverse, well-trained workforce. And finally, they should adopt a framework that fully integrates mental health services into everyday life for Americans, rather than continuing a disjointed, piecemeal approach to reform. 

Data don’t lie. With so many lives on the line, can we act together and re-imagine our broken system? We believe so, and just as our minds are inseparable from our bodies, we too are inseparable from each other.

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This illustration, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reveals ultrastructural morphology exhibited by coronaviruses. Note the spikes that adorn the outer surface of the virus, which impart the look of a corona surrounding the virion, when viewed electron microscopically. A novel coronavirus, named Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), was identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China in 2019. The illness caused by this virus has been named coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

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