Mental Health Awareness Month: Now More Than Ever We Need Change

It’s May and like every year, Mental Health Awareness Month is here. This is an unprecedented time in our history where the avenues for social supports have been redefined by social distancing rules and stay-at-home orders. For many, these social supports are a critical component of their wellness and in a blink of an eye, they were taken away.

For many years, Mental Health Awareness Month was a time to come together and highlight the struggle to remove the stigma that comes with mental health issues.  This has also been a time to raise awareness of the obstacles of community integration and health equality. Although we still have a ways to go, progress has been made thanks to the incredible efforts of so many people.  Most recently, there has been much-needed attention given to those in mental health services who have not had access to quality primary care.  This goes as well for those suffering from mental health issues who have not had access to the necessary screening tools and professional services.  During these times when many more individuals are feeling the effects of isolation, anxiety, and trauma it is important that we start to see more progress toward healthcare and social service systems working in unison and not in separate silos. 

All of those efforts and initiatives remain critically important and cannot be abandoned for any reason. However, this year I would suggest we look at Mental Health Awareness Month a little differently.  There is little doubt during and after this active COVID period, the Mental Health System, and the entire Behavioral Health community will be strained beyond its capacity. Many of our current efforts like better integration of primary and behavioral healthcare will be another essential tool during this critical period. But on their own, will they be enough? Do our current practices in primary and specialized healthcare have the necessary tools and direction they really need to be truly effective?  Are we ready for the volume of people who will soon be in need of services? 

We have faced crises and tragedies before.  One only has to think back to 9/11 or the string of natural disasters we have faced over the past few years to know what the effects these events can have on the wellness of people.  We are resilient people, but understand that all of those disasters, as devastating events as they were, and the horrific mark they left on so many people, really are different.  The crisis we find ourselves in today does not span a single state, a single region, or even a single country. Rather, it spans the entire world! We may have learned some lessons from those terrible incidents, but did we learn enough to feel assured we can handle the needs to come? I hope so, but in my heart of hearts, I do not believe we did. The sheer volume of people alone who will require some level of support is most likely to exceed the capacity of our behavioral health system, similar to how we have seen our primary care system become overrun in many places. The agencies we work with across the country and others like them will need support more than ever before. Over the past few months we’ve witnessed firsthand the remarkable efforts of agencies to continue to support the individuals they serve – sometimes putting themselves at risk to do so – so supporting them, as we move through this crisis into the period of post-COVID recovery, is absolutely critical. Even before this crisis, there were shortages of qualified behavioral health specialists in many parts of our country. If we look at the social determinants of health as a barometer of the potential issues we will face, it is pretty easy to determine that we are going to be confronted with a crisis of major proportion. The potential for long-term economic instability, education disruption, food instability, loss of community and social engagement, potential housing disruption, and access to healthcare is virtually inevitable. One’s physical and emotional health will be challenged and the potential for many people being in need will be high. 

So what can we do?  We must examine how this challenge can be met. We must immediately begin redesigning care models to facilitate the identification and early intervention to help minimize the long term need. Can we do it? Yes, we can do it. But to get there, changes are needed now. So, I propose we spend this month of May’s 2020’s Mental Health Awareness month, to redefine the model of care for people with emotional and behavioral needs. 

Let us use this month to strengthen our systems of care by implementing and advocating for the following suggestions:

  • Design approaches to care and tools to help people before their feelings fester into something more serious; we must educate our brethren on how to support others with programs like “Mental Health First Aid”.
  • Ease the regulatory burdens and roadblocks providers face.
  • Recognize that there will be a high need across many different settings including primary and specialized healthcare, educational settings, skilled and non-skilled congregate care settings, traditional and non-traditional behavioral health program settings as well other social service programs.
  • Address the shortage of qualified Behavioral Health professionals and paraprofessional workers through creative educational opportunities and fair compensation for the critical work they do.
  • Strengthen our existing safety net and do not let it be weakened by budget cuts and a failure to recognize the stability it brings to every facet of healthcare.
  • Continue efforts to break down the walls between healthcare systems with access to real-time data through improved information exchange. 
  • Learn to manage programs by using data of all types to develop efficient and effective service approaches and improved outcomes. 
  • Reduce money-draining duplicative administrative oversight that would add additional funding for our direct care providers.’
  • Make sure our schools have mental health professionals integrated into the educational system so there is less stigma in asking for help.

And most importantly, each of us needs to take a minute or an hour or a day to step back every so often and look at the positives in life and feel good about ourselves and others.  When fully recharged, we need to commit ourselves to bring that same feeling to those around us who are struggling and help them reach that point where they can at least smile again.