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More than 10 months into the pandemic, mental health is a simmering crisis for many of the nation’s schoolchildren, partly hidden by isolation but increasingly evident in the distress of parents, the worries of counselors and an early body of research. Mental health problems account for a growing proportion of children’s visits to hospital ERs, according to the CDC. From March to October, the figure was up 31% for 12 to 17 years old and 24% for children ages 5 to 11 compared with the same period in 2019. Others suggest the fallout of the pandemic could reverberate far beyond the time of masks and quarantines. “Students are struggling across the board,” said Jennifer Rothman, senior manager for youth and young adult initiatives at NAMI. “It’s the social isolation, the loneliness, the changes in their routines.” “Students who might never have had a symptom of a mental health condition before the pandemic now have symptoms,” Rothman said.
It’s far easier to engage in a meaningful, compassionate conversation about mental health issues in 2021 than a few decades ago, when they were still considered hush-hush. Compared to previous generations, Millennials and Gen Z are more open about their struggles with mental health and possess a greater understanding that mental wellness and physical wellness are integrated. In the 70s and 80s, science helped us to see the underlying neurological issues in a brain scan for someone suffering from schizophrenia, for example. This was truly something that was happening chemically inside of you. As these findings were surfacing, so did the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) in 1979, the largest mental health association in America. It was started as a support group for parents of kids who had mental illnesses. “A group of parents gathered around a kitchen table, fed up by the discrimination they faced while trying to help their children with mental illness,” says Dr. Ken Duckworth, CMO of NAMI. “They were turned away from care, even told that their parenting caused their child’s severe mental illness. They bonded together with people around the country to demand change, and while it was slow at times, they made progress.” Since forming, NAMI has evolved into the country’s largest grassroots advocacy organization for mental illness. They educate and raise awareness of mental illness, supporting both patients and their families with classes and support groups, advocacy and advocacy training, research, and offer guidance in navigating the costs of medication.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has, like other organizations, had to contend with a lot regarding COVID-19 and the delivery of its educational programming, according to its CEO. “People fail to realize that we have an epidemic within the pandemic,” Daniel H. Gillison Jr. told MHW. A “ripple of mental health issues” has been exacerbated. Racial trauma and economic issues have created fear and uncertainty, he said. One goal next year will be to increase the number of NAMI volunteers and expand its hours, possibly to 8 p.m., he said. NAMI's annual conference, NAMICon 2020, also went virtual. The organization successfully dealt with bandwidth challenges. “The upside is we had 12,000 participants with representation from the domestic U.S. and 31 countries,” he said. In the past, participants usually numbered from 1,400 to 1,600, Gillison said. Gillison indicated that COVID-19 saw more people being open and discussing mental health. “It helped to create a safe space for many,” he said. “You've seen all sectors — private, not-for-profit, entertainment, athletes, political — having a lot more conversation about the importance of mental health. The isolation has created that conversation.”
Angela Kimball, national director of advocacy and public policy at NAMI discusses that people are starting to rethink a police response to mental health crises. “We took the concept of defunding police to really be more about investing in community resources that really works to divert people from law enforcement involvement so talking about things like crisis hotlines and mobile crisis response,” said Kimball.
Young and old alike the holidays can often make mental health problems way a bit heavier. Dr. Ken Duckworth, CMO at NAMI provides some tips to help cope. The holidays as a rule can often be a time where a lot of people deal with isolation, anxiety, depression and now throw in a pandemic and this is a different year is a not a hearing about more people coming for services like the ones provided at NAMI this year. “The holidays are often a difficult time for people. this is the classic cognitive problem of Madison avenue you presents you with happy multi-generational families who all are apparently from the same political party,” said Duckworth. “That's not everyone's experience and for mental health has never been greater and this is one of the challenges that we face is, you know are there enough providers to see everybody it's hard to find a therapist right now.”
Although the pandemic boosted virtual telemedicine and efforts to normalize the conversation around seeking help for mental health concerns, this progress has not addressed the root crisis: There aren’t enough mental health-care workers to treat everyone in need. That scarcity isn’t something the nation can solve overnight. “It takes eight years to make a social worker,” says Ken Duckworth, CMO for NAMI. Practitioners ranging from rural clinics to larger nonprofits like the National Alliance on Mental Illness had to up their services. “Isolation is hard on people,” Duckworth says. “Uncertainty is hard on people. Winter can be hard on people. People are in distress, and they’re having clinically significant experiences.” “It has become much more ordinary to seek help for mental health,” Duckworth says. “Going forward, people with mental health concerns may not be considered the other.” The National Alliance on Mental Illness’s helpline has seen an increase in calls. At the onset of the pandemic, the number of people phoning them tripled. This volume has waxed and waned with outbreaks and other tumultuous events this year, such as the presidential election, the continued perpetuation of violent white nationalism, and the social movements toward equality. NAMI has recruited additional volunteers to handle the uptick. Teletherapy and phone sessions have closed the distance between providers and their rural patients, but this new connectivity is far from a cure-all, Duckworth says.
There's evidence that mental health is worsening during the pandemic, especially in the most vulnerable populations — younger adults, isolated seniors, members of Black and Hispanic communities, and care providers, whether paid or unpaid. But anyone can be vulnerable. Dr. Ken Duckworth, CMO at NAMI, said the effects of widespread mental health issues of all kinds may become the "next wave" of the pandemic. "We had a mental health crisis before the pandemic," Duckworth said. "And the pandemic has just accelerated uncertainty, economic distress. ... Nobody knows when they are going to get [COVID], or if they are going to get it. Human beings don't like that kind of uncertainty. Some do struggle more than others." Thousands of funerals have been canceled or downsized in Minnesota since the start of the pandemic. "That's just a really important ritual and many people have not been able to have that. And the grief process is going to take a lot longer," said Sue Abderholden, ED at NAMI Minnesota. "Telehealth is available. Would I say it's pervasive? I think it's working to become pervasive," said Daniel H. Gillison Jr., CEO of NAMI.
There are mutual benefits to celebrity disclosures, according to Katrina Gay, who oversees strategic entertainment-based partnerships at NAMI. “We click on these stories because they encourage discussion of topics that are often shamed or misunderstood,” she tells Yahoo Life.
“The combined emotional toll of fallout from the pandemic, racial injustice, a hyper-polarized political environment and uncertainty about the future has had a devastating impact on Americans' mental health in 2020.” NAMI’s Senior Manager of Youth and Young Adult Initiatives Jennifer Rothman answered live questions during this 1-hour call-in radio show.
Farhad Manjoo, opinion columnist, discusses the impending mental health crisis. According to a new Gallup survey, Americans’ assessment of our mental health is “worse than it has been at any point in the last two decades.” But now comes winter and the holidays, a time of special dread. Even in ordinary years, this season turns up the needle on stress. The pandemic winter promises a new layer to our mental anguish. “This year is very unlikely to be a good year for you if have had a history” of mental health issues, Ken Duckworth, CMO of NAMI, told me. “You’re going to have fewer connections, more isolation and more uncertainty.” Yet we might be as ill prepared for the mental toll of the pandemic as we were for its physical toll. The picture is bleak. Even before the pandemic, the U.S. had too few mental health professionals to meet the nation’s needs. The shortage is most dire in rural areas and in urban communities that are home to marginalized groups. Demand for treatment has skyrocketed, but supply has not. “It takes eight months to explode demand,” Duckworth told me, but several years to make a social worker.
Call the NAMI Helpline at
text "NAMI" to 741741