We can do something about America’s mental health crisis. The only question is whether there’s the political will to act.
We know that resources matter, because resources can translate into the trained professionals needed to help those in crisis to find their way back to mental health— before it’s too late.
That takes money, which always seems to be in short supply when the issue is mental health. That’s one reason we were pleasantly surprised when Ely Mayor and legislative candidate Roger Skraba recently recommended that Minnesota devote a billion dollars of the state’s current budget surplus to mental health. We suspect Mr. Skraba will find more support for that idea on the other side of the political aisle than within his own party, but it was a welcome idea, nonetheless.
The lack of mental health resources in northeastern Minnesota is particularly acute, and it has consequences. One local mental health counselor, who works in area schools, recently told us of her efforts to find help for several area students experiencing mental health crises. In every case, openings for appointments were months down the road. When people, especially young people, are in crisis, they don’t have months to wait for help.
It isn’t just young people, either. We know of area families who have had adult family members in crisis, who were unable to get the help they desperately needed. Some of those cases resulted in suicide.
We see this same lack of resources affecting our emergency medical services. A significant number of 911 calls in the region are related to mental health and when those patients need transport to an in-patient facility, it means hours of driving for local ambulance crews, since such facilities either don’t exist here or are already bursting at the seams.
We know that the COVID-19 pandemic and the increased isolation that it created for many, has contributed to the problem, offering at least a hope that some of today’s mental health problems might be temporary. Yet, America’s mental health crisis has been building for more than a decade and has been evident in rising rates of death from suicide and other so-called deaths of despair, which include deaths from alcohol and drug abuse. The increasing number of such deaths is the main reason that the average lifespan of an American has actually declined in recent years, the first time that’s been the case since the founding of the nation. Economic factors and the loss of opportunity for some has played a role in that. Toxic politics further add to the stress. Other indicators point to a growing despair that many people feel about environmental problems, from ocean pollution to climate change, and a sense of powerlessness over such seemingly intractable issues. Many Americans have the sense of a world and a nation that is spinning apart and rightfully fear an even bleaker future unless we can somehow muster the ability and the will to respond. For most of us, hope for a better future is a strong motivating force, one that helps keep our darker moments at bay. Loss of hope can feel like a bottomless black hole.
One new source of help for those experiencing depression, anxiety, or thoughts of suicide recently went online here in Minnesota and nearly two dozen other states. It’s a new three-digit hotline number, 9-8-8, that is supposed to quickly connect callers with a trained individual who can help.
It’s a start, but just that. Like other mental health hotlines, it’s like an emergency room. It may get the patient past an initial crisis, by treating symptoms, but it’s not a long-term fix for the underlying factors that are leaving so many Americans hurting. That takes a longer-term relationship with a trained mental health professional, something that simply isn’t available for most people in our region. We need to train many more and provide the funding necessary to enable them to serve all parts of the country. Mental health certainly isn’t just an urban concern. If anything, rural America is hurting even worse.
Ultimately, of course, we need to address the underlying issues that are fueling America’s mental health crisis. We have so much that needs doing in this country, that no one should feel a lack of opportunity. Addressing issues like climate change could generate much new, good-paying employment, while easing the angst over the issue that so many people feel.
Finding a way to turn social media to positive ends, rather than the falsehood and anger that seems to gravitate to such forums, could make a real change for the better. In the end, we can restore our mental health when we begin to take the steps necessary to restore our nation and our world.
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