Taking a Stand for Prevention this Mental Health Month
May is Mental Health Month – 31 days dedicated to raising awareness for, and breaking down stigma against, the tens of millions of Americans who will experience a mental health or substance use disorder each year.
With nearly one in five Americans living with mental illness and one in 12 living with addiction, and deaths from suicide and overdose at an all-time high, it’s clear that America’s mental health and addiction crises are not getting the attention they require of us. Now with the added impact of COVID-19, the gaping holes left by our current struggling system only seem to be widening, letting more and more people fall through the cracks.
We know what it will take to effectively and holistically address mental health and substance use disorders—and now more than ever, we need policymakers to take charge and make the necessary changes to support American families.
Improving mental health care in America begins with prevention. At its most basic level, bolstering America’s prevention strategies requires us to collectively agree that there is no health without mental health. Once that fact is common knowledge, we can do so much more to support the early detection and prevention of mental illness and addiction.
Mental health screenings and early interventions
The entire U.S. health care system (including schools, hospitals, and community health centers) must prioritize “check up from the neck up” screenings and early interventions so that we can treat mental health and substance use disorders “before stage four.” It’s never too early to get serious about mental health prevention strategies. This work must begin with perinatal behavioral health (that is, the mental health and wellbeing of mothers during pregnancy and through the first year of a child’s life) and continue throughout the developmental stages of children and young adults into adulthood.
Many of the tools we need to accomplish these screenings and early interventions already exist. For example, Mental Health America has free, comprehensive, and anonymous screening tools right on their website, and Postpartum Support International (PSI) has countless resources to help physicians screen for the presence of prenatal or postpartum mood and anxiety disorders. Policymakers must commit to expanding these programs on a larger scale and making them a standard practice in preventative health care for Americans of all ages.
Prioritizing prevention in schools
The early identification of mental health and substance use disorders is crucial in our efforts to support youth and families who may be facing behavioral health challenges. With suicide being the second leading cause of death among people aged 10 to 34, prevention and early intervention couldn’t be more important.
We believe it’s time for policymakers to prioritize funding and resources that take a multidisciplinary, comprehensive approach to the early intervention and treatment of mental health in our childcare and educational systems. These resources include social-emotional learning initiatives, increased access to mental health professionals for all students and as part of Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), home visiting programs, and mental health curricula and programs in schools that help people understand signs and symptoms and when to seek help. Examples like the National Institute of Mental Health’s RAISE program (Recovery After an Initial Schizophrenia Episode) and the California-based PREP program (Prevention Recovery in Early Psychosis) have proven what a positive impact these sorts of interventions can have on families. By utilizing a combination of early detection, rigorous diagnosis, supported employment, and an array of science-based treatments, the PREP program has resulted in a 71% decrease in hospitalizations for people living with symptoms of psychosis. Just imagine the benefits of implementing these initiatives in every community!
Addressing America’s suicide epidemic
We can’t afford to lose one more life to stigma and inaction. Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in America, and rates are even higher among our youth and military populations. Any discussion about prevention must include a plan to reduce suicide rates and support those at risk for suicidal ideation.
Policymakers must take a comprehensive approach to suicide prevention – one that includes prioritizing prevention in schools, law enforcement agencies, emergency rooms and hospitals, workplaces, and Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs). The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, a Mental Health for UScoalition leader and champion sponsor, has been fighting for sound suicide prevention policies for over 30 years and recently unveiled a plan to reduce the annual rate of suicide in the U.S. by 20% by 2025. With the support of federal, state, and local policymakers, we can make this a reality.
Supporting the needs of marginalized communities
When we say it’s time for Mental Health for US, we mean all of us! There is certainly no one-size-fits-all approach to the prevention of mental illness across the country, and we can’t respond to this crisis as if there is. According to the Office of Minority Health at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), people of color are less likely to receive mental health treatment or access mental health services than their white counterparts. Additionally, screening data from Mental Health America has shown that 86% of LGBTQ+ youth screened positive or moderate to severe for a mental health condition versus 74% of the general screening population.
Marginalized communities have faced disparities in mental health care (and health care at-large) throughout our country’s history, and any effort to improve their access to care will have to take that into account. It’s crucial that policymakers are intentional about providing support to these communities moving forward. This includes providing comprehensive, culturally competent, and accessible resources to people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, Native Americans, veterans and military service members, people with physical, intellectual, and emotional disabilities, and those in trauma-impacted neighborhoods.
Learn more about mental health through research
Public health policies are not effective without credible, peer-reviewed research to back them up. Unfortunately, inadequate funding has led to a dearth of research about mental health and addiction. The federal government must make substantial increases in medical research for mental health, suicide prevention, substance use disorders, and diagnostic tools to better understand the conditions and to provide better resources and more effective treatment for those struggling.
While strategies that support preventative care and early intervention of mental health are critically important, they’re just one piece of the puzzle. Throughout May, we’ll focus on the other branches of our policy platform to share how, together, we can fundamentally change the way America cares for people living with mental illness and substance use disorder.
Mental Health for US is a nonpartisan, educational initiative focused on elevating mental health and addiction to national policy conversations by empowering grassroots advocates and improving candidate and policymaker health literacy. The Mental Health for US coalition is comprised of 95+ organizations from around the country dedicated to uniting the American people to make systemic, long-term change with civic engagement tools and resources. For more information, visit www.mentalhealthforus.net.
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