By NEHA BHARDWAJ
The United States is currently in the thrall of a disastrous mental health crisis, the likes of which our nation has never seen before. Experts, like those at Perimeter Healthcare, are rightly alarmed over recent findings that more than 50% of Americans are diagnosed with at least one mental health disorder. What’s more is, the implications are devastating. The death toll is skyrocketing, with suicide rates reaching 42,000 per year and mental illness now shaving at least 25 years off a person’s life. However, the most disturbing part of this crisis is the utter lack of remedy. 60% of Americans with mental health disorders and 88% with addictions never receive any treatment (Perimeter Healthcare).
Moreover, beyond the appalling human toll, the economic impacts are staggering. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, untreated mental health disorders cost the U.S. more than $100 billion a year in lost productivity. Further economic strain falls upon hospitals, clinics, special education programs, courts, and jails.
The clear devastation brought on by the mental health crisis begs the question: Why has this crisis arisen, and why has it not yet come anywhere close to rectification?
A reason that may hit particularly close to home for Uni students is America’s so-called “stress culture.” Americans are among the most stressed people in the world, according to the annual Gallup poll of more than 150,000 people around the world. What’s more is, our stress levels are on a sharp incline, even in comparison to a mere year ago (New York Times). Stress has been proven to be a leading cause of mental health issues in Americans and is a key impetus of our national mental health crisis.
Beyond stress culture, though, the primary consideration that must be addressed is the lack of access to mental health services for hundreds of millions of Americans, by far hitting low-income residents the hardest. According to the National Council, 42% of the population saw high costs and poor insurance coverage as the main impediments to mental healthcare access. One in four Americans reported having to choose between access to mental health services and daily necessities of life. Many Americans must also face long drives to treatment centers, followed by lengthy wait times, oftentimes lasting multiple weeks.
Lack of access has further spiraled into an acute lack of funding for treatment facilities and research. According to the Washington Post, “underfunded treatment facilities, prisons and jails serving as de facto asylums, [and] a lack of advancements in medication” have culminated in a perfect storm of factors inhibiting access to much-needed help. Group homes with facades of healthy conditions often slip through the cracks, allowing for atrocious conditions inside: “broken windows, piles of garbage, filthy bathrooms and mattresses on the floor” are common aspects of such facilities, rendering them an unsuitable solution for many (Washington Post). Hospitals are not viable options either, especially for uninsured Americans. Emergency rooms typically refuse to admit high-functioning mental health patients or will reluctantly send them to a mental ward for a few days – not nearly enough time or treatment for such a visit to constitute any real help. Insurance often does not cover long hospital stays for mental health patients. However, even if a mental health patient does have the means to be taken into a hospital for a longer stay, this is no glittering panacea. State hospitals are, “overrun, understaffed and poorly funded, and filled with patients living in often abhorrent conditions” (Washington Post).
One of the most significant reasons for the severe shortcomings of the mental healthcare system is the caustic stigma surrounding mental health. According to the National Council, “nearly one-third of Americans… have worried about others judging them when they told them they have sought mental health services, and over a fifth of the population… have even lied to avoid telling people.” This stigma over mental health comes from the common public perception that mental disorders make people dangerous or unpredictable. However, while this perception may have a grain of truth to it, particularly in regards to the unpredictability, it is undoubtedly blown far out of proportion. For instance, despite preconceived notions about schizophrenics, research shows that they are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence.
In the face of our current mental health crisis, it is abundantly clear that our mental healthcare system cannot continue as it is – inaccessible, underfunded, overlooked, and stigmatized. The first step must be to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health. Young people (the group by and large most affected by the mental health crisis) are increasingly speaking out about mental health to open up the conversation surrounding it. Raising awareness also requires more inclusive and accurate statistics about mental health, since current studies often “omit institutionalized people, incarcerated, do not speak English or are homeless (Washington Post). Once the intense stigma surrounding mental health is alleviated, we must seize the new social awareness and use it to hold the government and healthcare corporations accountable for better state hospitals and mental health-inclusive insurance.
Ultimately, the mental health crisis will not have a “quick fix” in any sense. Bringing mental health to the forefront of policy debates and leveraging social awareness to win systemic reforms will undoubtedly be a long and tedious battle – but it is one worth fighting for. With our nation facing a skyrocketing death toll and piling economic strains, do we really have a choice?