Action Needed to Prevent Worsening of America’s Mental Health Crisis

By Alexandra Helfer, LPC, LMHC, LADC, CASAC 2

Many experts cautioned during the beginning of the pandemic that COVID-19 would likely cause America’s mental health crisis to intensify. Now, a federal report revealing rising rates of anxiety and depression has confirmed these suspicions to be well-founded, but federal funding currently allotted for mental health services is not enough to erase a national crisis that has been flying under the radar for years.

As of June 18 to June 23, the U.S. Census Bureau revealed that approximately 36 percent of Americans – about 1 in 3 people – reported suffering from symptoms of depression or anxiety. Additionally, this crisis is hitting close to home, with 39 percent of Connecticut residents experiencing anxiety or depression symptoms in mid-June – exceeding the national rate.

Along with these surges in anxiety and depression rates, higher rates of substance use disorders are likely to follow. Often, mental health disorders are intertwined with addiction, whether their anxiety or depression prompted them to turn to substances to relieve stress, or their addiction was the inciting factor that caused their mental health to spiral.

Prior to the pandemic, a 2018 report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) declared that almost 48 million American adults reported struggling with mental illness within the previous year. Of these individuals, 3.7 percent – or approximately 9 million participants – said that they also had a substance use disorder. The same study found that those who struggled with mental health disorders were more likely to use illicit drugs and were also more prone to misusing opioids than those without a history of mental illness.

As social isolation, financial concerns, and health issues caused by the pandemic continue to wreak havoc on Americans’ mental states, many indeed are turning to substances to cope with stress. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted in April found that many Americans – 13 percent of essential workers and 14 percent of non-essential workers – have increased their alcohol or drug use due to coronavirus-related apprehensions.  Indulging in a Zoom cocktail hour may provide a temporary sense of comfort, but it is far from the long-term solution that people need to handle difficult emotions, especially when their alcohol consumption grows out of hand and becomes difficult to stop.  

Addiction treatment centers have to be well-equipped to help clients manage a variety of mental health concerns so these individuals are better equipped to make positive choices that support long-term recovery. This is especially key in the age of COVID-19 and all of the unprecedented stressors associated with it. At Mountainside, we’ve seen outcomes that demonstrate the efficacy of treatment not only in stemming drug and alcohol cravings, but also in lowering rates of anxiety and depression among clients. For those in our Residential program, we saw a 74 percent reduction in depression symptoms between the first week and the fifth week of their treatment stay. Over the same period, we also recorded a 68 percent decrease in anxiety symptoms and a 65 percent reduction in substance cravings. 

Unfortunately, many struggling with mental health disorders don't have access to the lifesaving treatment they need due to a lack of available resources or finances. With cases spiking once again across the country, breaking down these barriers to treatment and demanding change on a federal level is critical to prevent needless loss of life – both due to the coronavirus and deaths of despair. But of the $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief bill passed at the end of May, the federal government has only provided $425 million for mental health groups, who estimate they would need 48.5 billion dollars to help themselves and others move past the effects of COVID-19.

To create meaningful change during and after the pandemic for those struggling with mental illness, we must…

1) Increase funding for behavioral health services to help mental health organizations provide high-quality care to their patients

2) Provide more mental health screenings to ensure that the most vulnerable individuals are given the tools to manage their symptoms sooner rather than later

3) Improve access to mental health services utilizing resources such as telehealth so those who are apprehensive about in-office appointments have more options for treatment

With much of our attention focused on the economic impact and the physical health effects of the coronavirus, we cannot leave behind those who already feel unseen by our current healthcare system.