On Oct. 10 people around the world celebrated World Mental Health Day by posting positive tips and urging their followers on social media to “check up on their friends.” Although this is an important message, are we missing the point? Advocating for mental health awareness must be more than that. Now, more than ever, mental health must be taken seriously. Nearly 80% of people living with mental illness have reported a worsening of their health during the pandemic.
The lack of social interaction or anxiety that now comes with it, fear of unemployment or a loved one dying from the virus have had an enormous impact on the conversation surrounding mental health. The current racial and political divide in the United States has also taken a toll on many. Helen Neville, a professor of educational psychology and African American studies at the University of Illinois, told CNN, “‘Racial battle fatigue’ is the burden that results from regular exposure to prejudiced information; prodding from people regarding racial events or wanting to become educated or allies, and people invalidating their experiences.” Microaggressions and racially motivated attacks can greatly deplete one’s mental health. According to CNN, people of color are also less likely to access useful mental healthcare and when they do, only 14% of psychologists were not white, as of 2015. This presents another obstacle due to the limited number of psychologists that can relate to the racism their patients feel.
Lower-income communities are also prevented from seeking help for mental illness. The stress of trying to put food on the table and making ends meet is taxing on any individual. On top of that, those who receive a lower income often do not have the time, resources or access to mental healthcare. The most recent census reported that 27.5 million people could not afford health insurance and over 7.5 million adults with mental illness were uninsured. In a study conducted by Mental Health America, including those with health insurance, 56.5% reported they received no treatment in the past year and 20.3% continue to report unmet treatment needs.
The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act passed in 2008 attempted a solution by requiring coverage of mental health to be comparable to physical health. However, numerous barriers remain for those seeking services. Medicare is not subject to this requirement and state government plans are allowed to opt out. Insurance companies have a low reimbursement rate for psychologists, so many do not accept insurance.
Mental health awareness must encompass these prevalent issues. It needs to include advocating for affordable healthcare, bridging the gap for lower-income communities to access therapy and understanding that depression will not disappear because you shared a post about kindness on your Facebook page. Yes, please check up on your friends, but also be aware that widespread mental illness can’t simply be cured this way. Being able to prioritize mental health and see a professional is a privilege that many are not granted.