It’s OK not to be OK
August 5, 2021
This week, we witnessed arguably one of the greatest gymnasts in the history of the sport, Simone Biles, show us that despite her stardom, we are all human. As the shining face of the U.S. Olympic team, she was shouldering an unbearable weight of the country’s gold medal hopes and made the brave decision to withdraw from the team final competition, citing her struggles with mental health.
Biles expressed, “We also have to focus on ourselves, because at the end of the day, we’re human, too. So, we have to protect our mind and our body, rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do.” This situation played out on a world stage, with millions watching and showing their support, but it isn’t the only example as many others often face these battles without a global spotlight.
Biles showcased the need to prioritize our mental health and acknowledged that it’s okay to not be okay. Saying this past year was tough is an understatement. For some, the feelings of anxiety and depression that emerged from the pandemic will resolve as we transition back to normalcy. For others, COVID-19 added serious burdens – or exacerbated existing struggles – and they face a new set of challenges ahead.
Fortunately, we’ve seen powerful and meaningful societal shifts in the way mental health is being discussed and addressed. Newsrooms such as CNN now have dedicated resources to cover mindfulness and offer stress tips, Demi Lovato, Kristen Bell and other celebrities alike have outspokenly expressed their struggles and invited others to join them on their journey, and forward-thinking companies like EY have rolled out programs to increase discussions around mental health in the workplace and to provide more services to employees. Within the first three months, they saw a 30% increase in calls to their mental health assistance line. But this is just the beginning. Where there is progress, there is just as much work to be done to improve the stigma surrounding mental health – and it begins with our youth.
The Impact on Youth
The pandemic’s heavy mental-health toll on adolescents in particular shows no signs of abating. According to a study published in April by JAMA, mental health conditions accounted for a greater share of pediatric emergency department visits throughout the pandemic, compared to years before. Lockdowns and school closures have also been associated with an uptick in pediatric mental health disorders.
In the article, “Pandemic Takes Heavy Toll on Youth Mental Health,” published in Medpage Today, Psychiatrist Tami Benton, MD, reflected on her experience aiding a 5-year-old patient who threatened to run into traffic and end her life. After the child’s parents lost their jobs due to the pandemic, her mother slipped into depression and was unable to properly care for her. When Benton asked the girl what she thought would happen after she died, she replied, “I will come back tomorrow, and I’ll be a good girl, and my parents will be happy again.” This exchange is heartbreaking and shines a light on the misconceptions around death amongst children.
Dr. Benton’s heart wrenching interaction, sadly, isn’t unique. As she testified to Congress last month, it’s a problem that is deeply and profoundly compounded by the fact that our healthcare system does not provide adequate access to resources for patients like this young girl and her family. At a Senate hearing on April 28, Dr. Benton told members of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pension Committee, “There is no place for this youngster and her family to receive the care that they deserve.” Ultimately, the girl was placed in an inpatient medical facility, but still not given the proper mental health care she so desperately needed.
You may be thinking, “She’s only five years old and faces no real stressors… she has a lifetime ahead of her!”, but studies have shown that an individual diagnosed with a psychiatric issue as a child is six times more likely to experience at least one adverse effect as an adult and nine times more likely to suffer from two or more adverse outcomes. This includes negative life events such as being incarcerated, dropping out of high school, having trouble keeping a job, and having serious health problems, such as addiction.
The Path Forward
Tackling mental health issues facing our youth must be prioritized and addressed without stigma if we want to see real change. As a society, we must focus on early intervention if we want to reduce behavioral health problems later in life.
In her testimony, Dr. Benton pointed out that an estimated 15 million children in the U.S. require mental health services each year, yet there are only about 8,000 to 9,000 child psychiatrists nationally serving the most severely impacted children. The reality is, most children fall through the cracks – creating significant loss not only for their families and themselves, but for society as a whole, for many years to come.
We must create more access points and options for young patients. There must be increased emphasis on recruiting, training, and retaining enough mental-health professionals to meet need. And, we must leverage new technologies such as telehealth and virtual counseling to help address the increased need.
What Can You Do?
Even if we have the necessary tools at our disposal, they don’t mean anything if we can’t get them into the hands of those facing mental health challenges – and that starts with the difficult but essential act of seeking help. Luckily, we can all play a role in the lives of our friends, family, neighbors, and acquaintances. If you or another person you know is in trouble, there are several ways to help them take a first step toward support and recovery – for all age ranges.
The Jed Foundation is a nonprofit that protects emotional health and prevents suicide for our nation’s teens and young adults. I urge you to check out the tremendous work they do if you haven’t already – and I’ll note that I’m proud to be supporting this organization through our work in the Health practice. The foundation partners with high schools and colleges to support students’ mental health and works to implement prevention programs with long-lasting impact into adulthood.
JED’s Mental Health Resource Center understands the challenges young adults face, and works to shine a light on the many things you can do as a friend or family member to ensure a safer and more manageable environment for them.
Knowing when extra help is needed is crucial, and you don’t need to be an expert to recognize when someone is in serious distress. Having conversations about mental health can be uncomfortable but can make all the difference in the world, and Seize The Awkward – a campaign partnership of JED, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and the Ad Council – can support those conversations and next steps.
As a family member or friend, learning the signs and understanding what to say and how to say it is imperative. Make an effort to learn the signs and conversation starters to become an active listener rather than a bystander.
Remember, there is no “I” in mental health. Don’t let your friend or family member fight the battle alone.