This year, we’ve heard a lot about the effect of the pandemic on mental health.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted surveys in June, finding that 40% of respondents reported an adverse mental or behavioral health condition. The number rose to 75% for those ages 18-24. The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services reported similar findings in a survey it conducted in May. In that survey, 65% of Alaskans reported being more sad or depressed than usual and 69% more angry or irritable than usual. Eighty two percent said changes in routines have been stressful.
We don’t know yet if that’s getting worse as the pandemic continues, or if people are adjusting and stabilizing, but the fact is that the pandemic has affected our mental health.
Even in normal times, 1 in 5 adults in the United States experience a mental illness. One in 25 experience a mental, emotional or behavioral disorder serious enough to interfere with or limit one or more major life activities, such as major depression, debilitating anxiety, schizophrenia. Fifty percent of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 14, and 75% by age 24.
The pandemic’s widespread effects offer us an opportunity to increase our understanding and to decrease the stigma related to discussing mental health. How many of us, or those close to us, have felt isolated, wary, unsure, hopeless, and/or threatened during this time?
This pandemic has created a world in which many can now relate to needing help to cope with uncertainty — and feel empathy for those who have been dealing with an overwhelming and confusing world for a long time. Perhaps we can imagine how just one more thing can pile on to a history of past trauma and push someone who had been a pretty functional adult to being unable to complete normal daily activities. Likely all of us now understand a little better how social isolation compounds over time.
Mental Illness Awareness Week (Oct. 4-10) shines a spotlight on mental illness, its prevalence, the stigma still attached to it, and the challenges people who live with chronic mental illness face.
We know that 70% to 90% of people with mental health challenges report improved quality of life with support and treatment, yet the average time between the onset of symptoms and getting help is 11 years.
This Mental Illness Awareness Week, let’s all work to help reduce the stigma of mental illness, and help those facing challenges feel safe in seeking help without judgment. Become familiar with the resources in your community so you know how to connect people to help. Listen to what people with mental illness want you to know. And if you are struggling, know that you are not alone. Help is available.
A list of Mental Illness Awareness Week events is at www.alaskabheavioralhealth.org. The Alaska Careline offers support 24-7 at 1-877-266-4357. NamiAlaska.org has resources for education and support groups. Alaska 2-1-1 can help you find appropriate services.
• By Andrew Crow, board president, Alaska Behavioral Health