America Needs Historic Investment in Mental Health

Onward. Upward.

By Angelo McClain, PhD, LICSW

Angelo McClain

When the pandemic broke, mental health experts warned that a historic wave of mental health problems was coming: depression, anxiety, insomnia, substance misuse, post-traumatic stress, and suicide. As predicted, COVID-19 has had a profound negative effect on America’s mental health.

Mental Health Concerns Spike

According to a CDC report, which surveyed adults across the U.S. in late June 2020, 31 percent of respondents reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, 13 percent reported having started or increased substance use, 26 percent reported stress-related symptoms, and 11 percent reported having serious thoughts of suicide. These numbers are nearly double the rates we would have expected before COVID.

Children have been impacted by social and recreational restrictions, school closures, parental health and family financial stressors, and reduced availability to school-based resources. They are uniquely suffering in ways we have barely begun to grasp—isolation, depression, loss of sleep, loss of appetite, increase in self-harm. Hospitals saw a 24 percent increase in mental health emergency visits by children ages 5 to 11 between April and October last year, according to Children’s Hospital Association data. For children who were ages 12 to 17, that number rose 31 percent.

Clinical and Social Care Solutions

It is crucial that social workers provide leadership to make evidence-based strategies broadly available to support the mental health needs of all Americans, especially in vulnerable communities. Particular attention is needed for people the system traditionally can’t absorb or reach.

Isolation has been a key factor in the exacerbation of mental health struggles. Social workers report they’ve seen more people reaching out for help because of isolation, and the message from the National Alliance on Mental Illness for Mental Health Awareness Month was “You Are Not Alone” — emphasizing the healing power that comes from making meaningful connections.

People who experience more severe stressors, such as exposure to death or dying, and people with more prolonged disruptions are more likely to experience enduring symptoms that will require therapeutic intervention. We also know people are more likely to develop chronic or severe reactions if they have one or more risk factors, such as poor social supports, financial difficulties, food or housing instability, or a history of mental illness. Receiving economic or social support and using coping strategies can lower these risks and maximize a person’s chances for recovery.

Policy Solutions

The Biden-Harris administration and Congress must include workforce development and loan forgiveness funding in the infrastructure plan to enhance America’s mental health care. A historic investment in mental and behavioral health is needed: ensuring that families have basic resources; supporting evidence-based services; helping schools implement programs on trauma; implementing student suicide awareness and prevention programs; expanding the pool of culturally competent providers to address mental health disparities; and researching the mental health impact of the pandemic on individuals, children and families.

The expansion of telehealth has helped many individuals seeking mental health care during the pandemic. NASW and other advocates want to make it easier for states to permanently implement telehealth even after the public health emergency ends.

Contact Angelo McClain at

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