Is America's mental health crisis a problem for society or Congress to solve?
By The Tylt
According to a new report by the American Psychological Association, people ages 15 to 21 have the worst mental health of any generation in the U.S., and many are blaming the current inescapable political maelstrom for the trend. The Human Rights Campaign reported a "rapid increase in youth bullying" since the 2016 campaign, and suicide rates are up in every state. There's no question mental health among young adults needs to be addressed, but when it comes down to strategy, should the solution come from adjusting societal standards and behaviors or from legislation?
Improving mental health is a shared burden. Given the sharp decline in mental health among teens since the 2016 election, it's paramount that parents and teachers remain in-tune with the deluge of negative news teenagers are regularly exposed to. Teen Vogue's Rachel Anspach points out that in The American Psychological Association's 2018 annual report:
Less than half of the young people surveyed reported 'very good' or 'excellent' mental health. And the report found that current events--such as gun violence, immigration policy and sexual harassment--play a central role in this generation's increasing stress, which in turn seems to be contributing to deteriorating mental health.
These questions are the great cultural issues of the generation, similar to the Vietnam War for baby boomers and LGTBQ+ rights for millennials. Without proper education on how to handle such questions, and the heavy mental toll they take, young people are left without the tools necessary to regulate stress and anxiety. Anspach continues:
Many young people are not adequately educated about mental health or offered mental health resources. This is particularly acute among young people of color in areas lacking government and social investment.
The experts Teen Vogue interviewed agree that it's crucial to dedicate more resources to trauma informed care and to provide youth with one-on-one therapy. But the true solution is changing the society we live in so that our youth aren't traumatized by daily life--a struggle with which all the young people I interviewed are deeply involved.
Meaning, the responsibility to improve mental health among young adults rests on the shoulders of society at large.
The catastrophic mental health crisis facing our nation cannot just be dealt with in our communities, large-scale change must take place at a policy level. As writer Danielle Campoamor writes in Teen Vogue, the time is long past to merely mourn for the people who commit suicide due to a lack of help.
There is something we can do about it all, though, beyond sending a poignant tweet after a heartbreaking death. We can vote those who support Trump's policies out of office. We can vote those who mirror his hateful rhetoric out of a job. And in 2020, we can vote Donald Trump out of the White House.
The president and his administration have enacted policies that dramatically decrease people's ability to obtain necessary services.
The president's proposed cuts to Medicaid and Medicare also pose a risk to those suffering from mental illness and substantially limit low-income people and people of color's ability to seek mental health treatment when needed. According to Isha Weerasinghe, a senior policy analyst focused on mental health for the Center for Law and Social Policy, undermining Medicaid and Medicare will 'deter states from providing depression screening and preventive services that maintain and improve mental health. This will be devastating for populations in poverty, particularly people of color, who are most likely to be insured by Medicaid, and would increase racial disparities of mental health.'
Since so many of the problems have begun at a policy level, they must be fixed at a policy level.
In their places, we can elect empathic leaders who not only understand the need for comprehensive, long-term affordable access to mental health care for everyone, but who understand that attacks on human rights impact the mental well-being of those targeted. Our lives are inherently political, and policies can, will, and do undoubtedly affect us on every level--especially our mental health.
There's no question that policy should match society's calls for improved support for mental illness, but true change starts at the bottom-with the counselors, teachers and peers teens interact with on a daily basis and how each approaches the topic of mental health.
Policy doesn't change behavior; behavior changes policy. It is rare for policy alone to alter the way society views, accepts and rejects one another. In order to truly improve the mental health of the country, society must first lean into accepting one another's differences.
The National Center for Biotechnology Information reports that:
More often, culture bears on whether people even seek help in the first place, what types of help they seek, what types of coping styles and social supports they have, and how much stigma they attach to mental illness.
Culture inevitably defines mental illness, and if society is responsible for creating a stigma surrounding mental health, it is also responsible for solving it. As the Mental Health Innovation Network'sPeter Piot points out:
We continually strive to fight mental health stigma both nationally and globally; but that begins at home, by fighting that same stigma in the workplace as well.
While making changes on the grassroots level is critical to begin to make any type of improvement to the declining mental health of the nation's teens, there is a limit to what can be accomplished without funding. While President Trump has frequently made calls to improve mental health care, specifically after the shooting in Parkland, he has also slashed healthcare funding.
According to NBC News, in February 2018 the president signed a two-year bill that included $6 billion for "opioid and mental health care." Experts though warned that the large numbers were misleading--the bill contained dramatic cuts to Medicaid.
'Medicaid pays for about a quarter of mental health and substance abuse treatment in this country,' said Rebecca Farley David, vice president for policy and advocacy at the National Council for Behavioral Health.
Slashing Medicaid means taking mental health care from vulnerable populations, David said, even if grants elsewhere are tacked on.
'By and large, if we make major cuts to Medicaid, we lose any progress that we might make elsewhere,' she told NBC News.
Policies protecting funding for mental health programs are needed to allow professionals to help individuals. While a culture of understanding and active outreach are crucial to end the crisis, funding is required to provide the requisite care.
Paul Gionfriddo, president and CEO of Mental Health America, said the country needs to rethink its approach to mental health entirely. Suicide rates keep rising as the mortality rates of other major killers like cancer dips because the nation invested in early, preventative care to catch symptoms early, he said.
'We never did that with mental illness. Here, we wait, and we wait, and we wait until we have crises,' Gionfriddo said. 'The lesson of yesterday is not what we're going to do about the shooter, it's what we're going to do about all the victims of the shooting: Three thousand people in that school--they've all experienced a profound trauma, and yet we have no level one trauma centers for mental health in this country. We have no plan.'