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To improve health, we must bring mental health out of the shadows

Jan 17, 2023

Note: This article by Kate Schroder originally appeared on LINK nky's website.

When a local teenage boy is diagnosed with type 2 diabetes by his pediatrician, he’s referred to a doctor at Cincinnati Children’s for follow-up. He may also be connected with a dietitian, diabetes educator and weight management specialist. The team spends the next year coordinating with the boy and his parents on issues like checking insulin, managing diet and losing weight, if necessary, until the disease is well-managed. The care is covered by the boy’s family insurance plan.

What if instead of diabetes, the teenage boy reported that he felt the need to be alone all the time and lacked motivation to go to school or participate in sports—some common symptoms of depression and anxiety? 

He may or may not be connected to the counselor at his school—if one’s available and has time to see him. So he’s referred to a community provider. His parents are given a packet of 50 names of psychologists and psychiatrists in the region, with no indication of who specializes in the treatment of depression among teens and who is accepting new patients—many are not. And his family’s health insurance coverage may not cover therapy, which can cost up to $300 per session.

A child with untreated diabetes could die, which is why the handoff to follow-up care is so critical. Untreated depression is also life threatening. Yet our system of mental health care is not equipped to provide lifesaving interventions or prevent illness in the first place. 

At Interact for Health, we believe that mental health is health. It shapes how we cope with stress, overcome challenges and build relationships. Good mental health enables us to value and engage in life. During a focus group last summer, one person in our community put it this way, “Mental health is being good with yourself.” 

Poor mental health is a significant and growing problem in our region, for both adults and young people. Our partners at PreventionFIRST! measure several common mental health indicators for youth in their biennial Student Survey. The 2022 survey found that more than half of youth in the region (53%) report stress, 39% say they’re nervous or anxious, 29% indicate a desire to be alone all the time and 24% say they are depressed. All of those indicators increased from the 2020 survey, likely showing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our young people.

Our 2022 Community Health Status Survey looked at frequent mental distress among adults—defined as having 14 or more mentally unhealthy days in the past month. In the region, 17% of adults report frequent mental distress. But the issue is more pronounced among certain groups: 42% of people who identify as LGBTQ+, 31% of people living in poverty, 25% of young adults ages 18 to 29 years old and 23% of rural adults said they have frequent mental distress. 

Clearly, improving mental health and mental health care in our region is a vast and urgent need.

Progress starts by recognizing that mental health is health – and by fixing systems of mental health care, addressing workforce shortages, working to make care more accessible and affordable, and reducing stigma. We also need to help our young people build a strong foundation for mental health.

It won’t be easy. It will take all of us. And it will take time. My challenge to you is this: How can you bring mental health out of the shadows in your own life? Are there ways you could talk about and normalize mental health in your own circles – being kind, empathetic and nonjudgmental? Could you pay attention during routine health care visits to see if mental wellness is asked about in the same way we screen for physical health – and ask questions if not? Even with insurance, can we ask more questions about why reimbursement rates differ for mental health and physical health?

We all have a role to play in helping to address the rising mental health crisis – especially for our kids – and it starts with bringing mental health out of the shadows in our own lives.

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