Mental health problems have become America’s shadow epidemic

America’s mental health crisis began long before the coronavirus pandemic hit, but a year and a half of loss, stress, isolation and disruption to treatment has only made more Americans struggle with their mental health.

why does it matter: With demand rising beyond pre-pandemic levels, the system is facing overburdened and understaffed providers, and even more people who need care are not getting it.

The Big Picture: Mental health care was already inequitable and was in short supply before the pandemic.

  • But the number of people reporting symptoms of anxiety or depression has risen dramatically during the pandemic and has remained high.
  • Substance use has also increased, and an alarming number of children and teens are showing up in emergency rooms seeking treatment for mental or behavioral health.
  • General Surgeon Vivek Murthy said in an interview.

News leadership: This month, a group of child health care organizations declared a national child mental health emergency.

playing condition: Not everyone will recover once the stress of the pandemic wears off.

  • “The pandemic has been a source of shock to a lot of people, and when you think about it in that context, the effects of the trauma take time to resolve,” Murthy said. “And they don’t always resolve on their own — they don’t always resolve by removing the source of the trauma.”
  • “When things start to go back to normal, the full burden of the trauma they’ve been through begins to surface in their lives, and they have to deal with that,” he added. “That’s why I think it’s a good time for our country to have a conversation about mental health.”

What we are watching: Many people with anxiety or depression will be fine if they learn effective coping skills or access treatment.

  • But public experts fear that if left unaddressed, some people’s mental health struggles will get worse.
  • “All mental illnesses tend to make people more susceptible to addiction, in part because people find that a lot of these drugs and potentially addictive substances help with their mental health issues,” said Marcus Plesia, MD, chief medical officer. Officer Association of State and County Health Officials.
  • Not everyone has equal access to care. In fact, some of the same people most affected by the stresses of the pandemic — such as low-income families or people of color — may be at greater risk of not getting the mental health treatment they need.

Bottom line: We may have come out of the worst part of the coronavirus pandemic, but we are just beginning to grapple with the subsequent mental health epidemic.

  • We now have the opportunity to do a better job than simply get back to the way things were in 2019, Murthy said.
  • “If we just go back to where we were before the pandemic, we would have missed out on a powerful and important lesson from this pandemic, which is [that] We have to invest in our mental well-being.”


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