The statistics are startling. Between 2007 and 2019, adolescents reporting a major depressive episode increased 60 percent. Tragically, during a similar time frame, the suicide death rate among 10–24 year olds increased 56 percent. This issue isn’t confined to young people. In 2020, anxiety and depression increased globally by 25 percent. Depression and anxiety rates exploded so rapidly that, at the end of 2021, the U.S. Surgeon General declared a “devastating” national mental health crisis.
What is going on with mental health? Issues that once seemed to affect only a subset of the population now are everywhere. Practically every American either has personally grappled with mental health problems in the last few years or knows someone who has. Read on to learn how this mental health crisis has grown/increased in the last decade, how the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated existing issues, and what we can do individually and institutionally to combat it.
The COVID Earthquake
At first glance, the mental health crisis in America may seem self-explanatory. The onset of COVID-19 produced a historic global situation, not unlike a massive earthquake: an unexpected and devastating natural disaster with vast aftershocks. Unsurprisingly, poor mental health outcomes directly resulted from this. A poll from July 2020 found that many adults reported specific negative impacts on their mental health and well-being such as difficulty sleeping (36%) or eating (32%), increases in alcohol consumption or substance use (12%), and worsening chronic conditions (12%)—due to worry and stress over the coronavirus. The widespread lock-downs caused millions of people to abruptly lose in-person access to their offices, churches, and restaurants. Though safer from COVID, these environments possessed far less social access, and the CDC noted “feelings of loneliness or isolation” directly tied to mental illness.
Cracks Beneath the Surface
While the COVID-19 pandemic certainly escalated the crisis, it was not the underlying cause. As the New York Times reported, “The decline in mental health was intensified by the Covid pandemic but predated it, spanning racial and ethnic groups, urban and rural areas and the socioeconomic divide.” This analysis, that the pandemic exacerbated, but didn’t cause the mental health crisis, bears out in other areas of therapy and treatment.
Dr. Sara Salkil, director of the Child and Family Service and Master of Marriage and Family Therapy programs, notes the effect on marriages. The pandemic, and all its related effects, strained all kinds of relationships, with some evidence finding divorce initiation and inquiries increasing 34% in the US and as high as 95% in the UK. According to Dr. Salkil:
“Our culture is such that many of us leave the home to work or attend school; we have several hours apart from our families during a typical workday. In the wake of the shutdown, families found they were not prepared to spend every minute of the day in the same house. It’s natural that underlying distress in a family system would emerge during this crisis.”
The pressures of COVID-19 revealed fault lines in marriages that might have otherwise been easy to ignore or put off. Times of high stress and considerable change, like the period of the last few years, ratchet up existing issues within any relationship, particularly marriages. They forced people to confront problems they’d failed to deal with.
What Can We Do in the Aftermath?
As with the aftermath of any disaster, we need to know how we can rebuild and prevent harm in the future. What are some concrete steps to improve resiliency in Americans’ mental health?
One tactic consists of equipping individuals to self-regulate. For example, last month, the CDC published a guide to coping with stress, which included suggestions like taking breaks from news stories, being more active, connecting with your community- or faith-based organizations, and more. Though these suggestions may seem obvious, the pandemic has been a ‘hard reset’ on a lot of behaviors we’ve previously taken for granted. Americans are far more online, physically unhealthy, stressed, and disconnected from in-person experiences than ever, so making lifestyle changes like these are effective ways to proactively produce better mental health outcomes.
But, it’s also just not all up to the individual. Institutionally, nations and organizations need to structurally and financially support mental health treatment. A brief issued by the World Health Organization (WHO) found that, in 2020, governments worldwide spent on average just over 2% of their health budgets on mental health and many low-income countries reported having fewer than 1 mental health worker per 100,000 people. This chronic underinvestment directly contributes to worsening mental illness. In reaction to this study, Dévora Kestel, Director of the Department of Mental Health and Substance Use at WHO, argued: ”While the pandemic has generated interest in and concern for mental health, it has also revealed historical under-investment in mental health services. Countries must act urgently to ensure that…support is available to all.”
Dr. Salkil agrees. We need more investment in mental health support networks and workers able to address this crisis. All the programs she oversees at ACU Online exist to train the next generation of healthcare workers and therapists and send them out into the world. According to her:
“Students in the undergraduate Child and Family Services program and the Marriage and Family Therapy programs are seeing the needs of their communities and are stepping forward to equip themselves. These students are leaning into the calling they perceive, a calling that is directly related to the suffering happening all around us.”
In these programs, professors at ACU Online like Dr. Salkil are training therapists to help people work through these rough patches to reinforce and refine their own relationships and learn better coping strategies in the process. Through this, their clients can become healthier, more resilient people and, in turn, form supportive, collaborative communities themselves.
Clearly, the last years have been disastrous and disruptive to marriages, families, and communities. It’s shown that, in the end, we need both individuals and institutions to solve our mental health crisis. Are you the kind of person ready to strengthen mental health in your community? Visit our website or call 855-219-7300 to learn how you can become a positive change-maker in your world.