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Efforts taken to mitigate the pandemic have increased mental health crises and highlighted the nation’s lack of affordability for mental health.
Beginning in March 2020, life was put on pause because of COVID-19. Every day looked the same: wake up, online classes, social media, homework, Netflix and go to bed. Human connections were reduced to faces on a screen, and the outside world could only be experienced during family walks or rare trips to the grocery store. After almost a year of lockdowns, limitations and isolation, it should come as no surprise that mental health issues are on the rise.
The United States has always had issues handling mental health. In the past year specifically, the number of American adults facing at least one mental health issue increased by 2 million, according to the 2021 State of Mental Health in America report.
“I’m seeing what seems to be an increase in mental health issues,” said Brian Laurence, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “There is (general) anxiety related to uncertainty about the future.”
Laurence said that the issues he’s been seeing seem to be related to a lack of social connection and a disruption in routine activities that make life enjoyable. He said less interpersonal connection and employment opportunities have decreased feelings of self-value and self-efficacy in individuals.
Humans are social creatures. Although the safety measures put in place during the pandemic were necessary, they created increased isolation which brought underlying mental health issues to the surface.
Logically, those struggling would think to look for help and possibly find a therapist to help them. However, mental health services in the United States have become so impacted that they cannot meet the needs of those in need of aid.
According to the State of Mental Health in America report, 23.6% of adults with mental illnesses reported being unable to receive treatment in 2021. This number has been increasing ever since 2011. The study cites that limited insurance coverage, insufficient finances to cover treatment costs and an undersized field of mental health workers are some of the barriers keeping those in need from receiving treatment.
Unmet mental health needs is a pre-existing issue that the COVID-19 pandemic has aggravated. The aforementioned increasing trend in unmet needs since 2011 suggests that, even before the pandemic the U.S. did not have enough mental health services to provide treatment for those struggling.
“Government resources and community based organizations are very helpful in filling in some of the gaps in services, and many [therapists] offer sliding scale fees,” said Laurence. “But do we have enough [services] for everyone? Not yet, I’m afraid.”
This pandemic has emphasized a need for prioritizing mental health by exposing the prevalence of underlying mental health issues in the nation’s population. The sheer amount of people going untreated for these issues further signifies a need for more mental health resources in our nation.
One solution to these issues includes offering free mental health services to those whose insurance won’t cover expensive private practices. One’s financial status or class standing shouldn’t determine their ability to receive treatment for mental illness.
Furthermore, incentives should be put in place to fulfill the need for more workers in the mental health arena. These incentives would help to offset the challenging process of becoming a licensed therapist.
“The path to licensure is a long one — mine took nine years — and like other professionals, therapists have student loans and other bills to pay,” said Laurence.
These are changes that need to be put into place over the next few years. For the time being, Laurence suggests that those who are unable to access treatment should continue practices that have been helpful in the past such as talking to a spiritual adviser or trusted friends and family.
“It’s also often helpful to set small attainable goals for improvement,” said Laurence. “Practice self-compassion, take care of your physical health and strive for proper sleep and a healthy diet.”
Government focus on the COVID-19 pandemic must not diminish after the number of cases becomes nominal. Rather, its focus must shift to the parallel mental health pandemic that has emerged in its wake.