Awareness and action needed on mental health

In the United States, did you know that about half of all adults and 70% of children with a mental illness diagnosis never receive care for it?

In Ohio, did you know that 1,906,000 residents have been diagnosed with a mental health condition?

In the Mahoning Valley, did you know suicide rates have been skyrocketing with Trumbull County reporting a gargantuan 100% increase between 2021 and 2023?

Chances are many of you answered “no” to one or more of the above questions testing awareness of the growing scope of the mental health crisis in our nation, our state and our community. That’s one prime reason why the month of May’s designation as Mental Health Awareness Month carries so much need and value.

Mental Health Awareness Month launched in 1949. In the intervening 75 years, the understanding of and treatment for anxiety disorders, depression, bipolar affective disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, paranoia, schizophrenia, suicidal tendencies and other mental diagnoses have matured and improved greatly.

Sadly enough, many outdated, false and destructive attitudes surrounding mental illness have not.

That’s why one of the ongoing — and still very much needed — goals of Mental Health Awareness Month remains education on the harm created by lingering stigmas surrounding mental health conditions.

Though the belief that “only crazy people go to therapy” has dwindled in recent years, other less explicit forms of stigmatizing people remain. Those who make snarky comments or who deny the importance of mental health struggles tend to make those struggles even more anguishing for those afflicted.

Such attitudes make this month of awareness one in which success is critical. In short, maximum awareness of mental health can save lives.

To be sure, progress has been made in recent years, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic that wreaked havoc on the mental health of millions in this country.

For one, national initiatives in the past few years have invested billions in funding to create a myriad of Certified Community Behavioral Health clinics across the country, to fund hiring and training of mental health counselors in schools and to expand Medicare coverage to include additional substance use disorder services and expand mental health services.

Despite such growth in resources, mental health challenges remain. Prime among them is reduction of this nation’s soaring suicide rates. Suicide represents the ultimate failure of mental health resources and of missed opportunities to prevent self-harm.

Today, the trend lines are not encouraging. After a long, steady decline in national suicide rates through the latter half of the 20th century, those numbers began steadily ticking up in the late 1990s and have generally risen ever since, with nearly 50,000 people in the U.S. taking their own lives in 2022, up 3% from the previous year. That’s one suicide every 11 minutes.

One of the more promising tools for prevention has been the establishment of 988, the Nationwide Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, which anyone can call, text, or chat to be connected to a trained crisis counselor. The easy-to-remember, three-digit number provides 24 / 7, free and confidential support to anyone experiencing thoughts of suicide, a mental health or substance use crisis, or other severe emotional distress.

In the first year since 988s’ rollout in 2022, the line has answered nearly 5 million contacts and it is on pace to substantially increase usage as public awareness campaigns proliferate. Yet even though the hotline has led many of its callers and texters onto a path of recovery, the crisis line is not without its flaws. 9-8-8 calls are routed to local crisis centers based on their area code. This is unlike 9-1-1 that relies on a caller’s specific geographic location to route their call. Many individuals therefore have a longer wait to access counseling and local resources they desperately need.

Enter the Local 9-8-8 Response Act introduced in this session of Congress by Sens. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.). It would require all 9-8-8 calls and texts to be routed quickly and directly to the call center geographically closest to the caller, rather than by area code.

Given that minutes count in mental health emergencies, the bipartisan bill should sail smoothly and rapidly through the House and Senate. We urge the Valley’s congressional delegation to support it and for local residents to actively lobby for its passage.

In so doing, they can live up to the purpose of Mental Health Awareness Month and go one step farther by acting on that awareness toward recovery and a stronger quality of life for millions in our nation.


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