90% of Americans Believe We Are Experiencing a Mental Health Crisis.
What Can We Do About It?
A recent national poll revealed that 9 out of 10 Americans believe we are experiencing a mental health crisis in our nation. This comes on the heels of the U.S. Surgeon General’s warning of an “urgent” youth mental health crisis that will require an all-hands-on-deck approach to address. All this while 65% of therapists in a nationwide American Psychological Association survey reported no capacity for taking on new patients because of overwhelming demand.
The collective trauma born out of the pandemic has obviously been a catalyst for this current degree of severity. In truth though, our mental health challenges have been a widespread problem for a very long time, as many millions of Americans ongoingly experience struggles. These challenges have been profoundly neglected and supports for their alleviation severely under-resourced.
Our nation is in a fragile state. We experience high rates of toxic stress, depression, anxiety, trauma, ptsd, suicide and many other related indicators of poor mental health. No one is untouched. Many of us experience mental health challenges in our own lives, even more of us encounter them in our families and workplaces, while all of us feel the consequences in our communities and our nation. Our personal and social resilience decay under the emotional wounds that are born out of these pervasive mental health struggles — especially the festering scars left behind by the rampant neglect of properly tending to them. The spill-over-effects are also immense. We see physical health declines, rising violence and crime, excessive bullying and now even mass shootings in schools, and considerable losses in worker productivity to name just some of the most glaring examples that can arise out of the negligence.
Our collective mental health struggles are already overwhelming today, but the costs of continuing to ignore our needs related to them will likely become even more dire as we face unprecedented global challenges in the coming years. The continuation of this already lengthy and stressful pandemic and others predicted to come in the decades ahead could emotionally tax our culture even more intensely than it has these past two years. The future also looks rather bleak through the lens of climate change, where we will face unparalleled conflict and trauma as millions could be displaced, as natural disasters dramatically increase and competition for critical resources like water and food become endemic. Our individual and collective coping capacities are under massive stress right now. We will need significantly expanded psychological support systems to build up our resilience to navigate these emerging and intensifying global stressors.
This is a red-alert moment urging us to address the gaping holes in our mental health infrastructure.
What Can We Do?
It is confounding that we have at our disposal innumerable potential modalities to meet and treat our mental health struggles, but are choosing not to employ them at the scale needed. These resources, if utilized, would help heal those directly struggling as well as our fraying social fabric. However, it will take intensified public advocacy to motivate the substantial investments and policy shifts necessary to bring sustainable solutions to bare.
Effective supports include long-term preventative measures as well as more immediate interventions.
Investing in a strong social safety net is a critical ingredient to good mental health. We must address underlying causes like poverty, lack of access to healthcare, childcare and good education — among other related challenges that are often a breeding ground for susceptibility to entrenched mental despair.
We must also invest in both direct mental healthcare supports for individuals and families as well as systematized, community-wide interventions deeply embedded into public and private sectors — in ways far wider in breadth than we are employing now.
Specific supports can include increased access to mental health services. This includes more requirements for healthcare to cover mental health needs as well as other public supports. But it also includes private sector investments, particularly in our workplaces, where one-fourth of employees view their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives. Data shows that mental health issues result in 200 million lost workdays and cost companies some $200 billion.
The good news is that spending by both government and the private sector show significant returns. Recent research shows that every $1 investment in mental health can see $4 in benefits.
There are a broad array of mental health-related supports we can make more available. They can include individual and family therapy, stress management, life skills, parenting skills, employee assistance programs, worker protections for those suffering mental health challenges, workplace wellness programs, comprehensive community-based programs, wrap-around services for the most at-risk youth (these can include a team of family or other caregivers, teachers, therapists, social workers, and physicians, among others), ptsd and trauma recovery work, addiction support, domestic violence support, rehabilitative services for incarcerated individuals, among many other potential modalities. We must make especially sure to reach the most vulnerable and traditionally marginalized communities who are typically the hardest hit.
Supporting Our Kids
Our children in particular can also be better aided in schools, by providing whole-child education, conflict resolution and self-regulation practices and curricula, using neuro-regulatory strategies and tools.
One example is Social Emotional Learning. CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, describes SEL as “the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions. SEL cultivates important “protective factors” to buffer against mental health risks.”
Additional specific approaches in schools can include stress management, mindfulness, restorative justice and processes, bullying cessation, and other proven and promising methodologies. All such curricula should have programs for students, teachers, and administrators. These types of programs not only improve mental health more immediately, they also help build life-long skills for our kids that can be crucial pattern breakers for the collective mental health traumas we are struggling with as a culture.
Shoring up public and private sector supports for our mental health and emotional resilience will not only help stave off worse case scenarios, they can also build the kind of lives and society that most of us deeply long for. The spillover effect could mean less personal and social discord, more of a sense of our deep interconnection with each other as a human race and more supportive and loving families and communities. One can possibly imagine the many positive changes that would occur and the ripple effect it would have. These are investments that will pay dividends for generations to come, and the challenges of the emerging world demand it.
To learn more and take action, please explore the Peace Alliance’s BluePrint for Peace, which advocates for proactive, healing-focused approaches that positively impact individual and societal challenges related to mental health, conflict, violence, and their underlying traumas.
Matthew Albracht is the former Executive Director and a Board Member of The Peace Alliance (www.peacealliance.org), a U.S. based NGO which advocates for domestic and international peacebuilding priorities. He is also the author of the new book entitled: Nourish Your Self Whole: A Guide to Core Dietary Pillars, with Achievable Steps for Vibrant Health. His writings have appeared on CNN, HuffPost and other outlets.
He has a B.A. in psychology, with a focus on ecopsychology and an M.A. in Humanities and Leadership with a focus on Culture, Ecology and Sustainable Community.