Navigating America’s Unprecedented Mental Health Winter of 2020/2021

As the dust settles on one of the most polarizing and emotionally charged presidential races in the United States’ history, the country finds itself in the midst of a mental health crisis of historic proportions.

Jay Ruderman

Jay Ruderman, President
Ruderman Family Foundation

The mental health aftershocks of the 2020 election will be felt for months and, potentially, for years to come. Leading up to Election Day, the American Psychological Association found that 68 percent of U.S. adults considered the election a significant source of stress in their lives, up from 52 percent in 2016. Now, approximately half of voters are faced with the reality that starting next January, the candidate they chose will not occupy the Oval Office for the next four years. Many of those citizens who felt that an immense amount was at stake in this election will experience deep despair and the potential flare-up of mental health issues.

On a parallel track, nine months into the COVID-19 pandemic, falling temperatures will diminish the much-needed reprieve of safe and socially distant outdoor activities. The realities of winter will intensify the sense of isolation which typically exacerbates mental health challenges. In August, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had already published a survey in which 41 percent of respondents said they were struggling with at least one mental or behavioral health issue resulting from the pandemic. Thirty-one percent reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, 26 percent cited trauma or stressor-related disorder symptoms, 13 percent began or increased substance use, and 11 percent said they had seriously considered suicide in the 30 days preceding the survey.

The mental health complexities associated with this fall’s return to school are also here to stay for the foreseeable future, especially as states and school districts manage the on-again, off-again pattern of in-person classroom instruction that is caused by surges in COVID-19 cases. Distance learning will continue to take a toll on students and parents alike.

Given this mounting convergence of severe stress factors from a mental health perspective, is this nation prepared to provide tens of millions of at-risk Americans with the support they need?

From politics to the pandemic and beyond, it is crucial to understand that mental health is not something to be stigmatized. In one way or another, mental health is a central part of life for every human being. Consequently, the substantial mental health risks stemming from these turbulent times must be swiftly and effectively addressed by industries, institutions and all levels of government.

Understanding this urgent need, our Boston-based foundation has forged local partnerships across sectors which increase the accessibility of mental health resources. These initiatives include elementary and high schools, colleges and universities, places of worship, hospitals, law enforcement agencies and more. Simultaneously, we are working to normalize the mental health conversation, including through a campaign with the Boston Red Sox to reduce the stigma attached to mental health. The Foundation is also amplifying the impact of influential voices such as Taraji P. Henson, actress and founder of a foundation dedicated to eradicating the stigma surrounding mental illness in the African American community, who in October received our organization’s Morton E. Ruderman Award in Inclusion. Previously, we presented the same award to decorated Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, in recognition of his advocacy for mental health awareness.

With the pandemic persisting, it is of paramount importance to increase access to mental health services for all Americans. This means ensuring the robust availability of licensed professional counselors, clinicians-in-training and all staff members at clinics and other organizations providing mental health services.

The pandemic has compelled our Foundation and other organizations to innovate in how we respond to mental health issues — but such innovation must address the root of the problem, rather than exclusively responding to COVID-19. And the problem has always been the lack of access to indispensable services. Even before the pandemic, nearly 60 percent of U.S. adults and 50 percent of youths aged 8-15 with a mental illness did not receive mental health services during the year they needed them, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

This is not a new crisis, but rather the exposure of a lingering injustice. Components of an innovative, proactive approach to broadening access to mental health services could include working with companies to implement less stressful workplace cultures, advocating for increased government funding toward mental health and encouraging open conversations which foster an inclusive and tolerant society that is free of judgment.

Leaders, organizations and communities of all types possess the very same opportunity: identifying and pursuing new avenues to help all people access the resources they need to successfully navigate America’s literal and figurative mental health winter. Our individual and collective vitality depends on it.

Jay Ruderman is President of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which advocates for and advances the inclusion of people with disabilities throughout society.

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