Some readers may be negatively affected by information in this article, such as mental conditions, self-harm, and suicide. If you need mental health assistance, please contact 988, or if it is a police emergency, contact 911.
A recently featured headline on Smerconish.com read, “Psychologists reaching their limits as patients present with worsening symptoms year after year.” We didn’t need this article reporting on a survey of members of the American Psychological Association to tell us that the state of mental health in the United States continues to decline. We can see it all around us.
Many factors contribute to the declining mental health of our nation, including:
The Pandemic: According to the World Health Organization, “In the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by a massive 25%. . . ”
The Economy: The mental health impact of high inflation is described in a September 2023 article, “Inflation hardship, gender, and mental health,” by Patricia Louie et al., published in the journal “SSM Population Health.” The authors provide data-based information supporting what simple logic tells us: financial stress can lead to general distress, which can lead to depression and anxiety.
Political Polarization: “Partisan polarization significantly drives stress and anxiety among Americans, and recent aggregate-level studies suggest polarization may be shaping their health,” according to researchers Timothy Fraser et al. in the journal PNAS Nexus in March 2022.
Some expect mental health organizations, governments, businesses, insurance companies, and others to solve the mental health crisis in America, but it’s going to take more than that. Mental health organizations can add more staff. The government can increase funding and create new programs. Businesses can treat workers better and offer employees more mental health services. Insurers can fund more mental health benefits. Mental health challenges are so pervasive that while all these things may move the needle, it is not a quick fix.
For me, the mental health crisis has always been present and has only gotten worse. Like many families, my family has a history of mental illness in a range of forms. My mother’s aunt took her own life in the 1950s. My father’s father was a child coal miner in Western Pennsylvania who grew up in harsh conditions and became an alcoholic child abuser. One extended family member survived many suicide attempts. Other relatives have experienced an array of mental health conditions: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, Autism, ADHD, Anxiety, Depression, Addiction . . . and more.
In 2020, the mental health crisis became very personal. I was hospitalized – nearly dead – from high blood pressure (232/160), heart failure with a resting pulse rate of 130, and kidney failure. The resident in the emergency room told me that most people in my condition did not arrive alive. But there I was.
My physical health stabilized. The clinical cause of my poor health was clear: I had received no medical care for more than 20 years despite having health insurance throughout. The root cause was much more devious: I was suffering from a mental health crisis, which only became worse with each passing year of my life.
I could not function in a healthcare setting. Just taking my children to the doctor would set my heart racing. I would have tunnel vision and difficulty breathing. My thoughts would become muddled. I was not sure if I would pass out, throw up, or flee the building. I could support family members when they needed care. However, the thought of me receiving care was terrifying. I told myself I’d rather die than get medical care.
After I got out of the hospital and slowly regained my physical health, I knew I needed mental health services. Eventually, a psychologist figured it out: I was experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) stemming from adverse childhood medical and dental experiences. Asking me to go to a doctor’s office was akin to asking a combat veteran with PTSD to return to combat. I just couldn’t do it.
My mental and physical health have greatly improved through therapy, the kindness of others, educating myself, and developing better habits. I manage my PTSD, get regular health, and I am enjoying life. Increasing mental health awareness is now one of my missions in life.
I have become a certified peer specialist (CPS) for mental health. I work part-time in a community mental health organization, and I help anyone who reaches out to me get mental health information and support. The CPS has a little-known role in the mental health system. Based on their mental health recovery, specialized training, and completion of both a written and oral exam, a CPS helps others in their mental health recovery.
Make a Difference for Yourself and Others
While the services of trained and licensed mental health professionals and, in some cases, medications can be very beneficial, you can take steps today to help yourself and others:
- Educate yourself: There are many good sources of information about mental health. Accept that we don’t know more about mental health than we do. We can be ignorant or educated. A great source is NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
- Stop the stigma: A mental illness is just that – an illness. A person who has the flu has no control over the flu virus. A person with mental illness did not choose it. Unlike the flu, mental illness is not contagious!
- Be a dealer of hope: Don’t dwell on the past. Think about the future. Encourage yourself and others to move toward a better future one step at a time.
- Listen: People suffering need someone to hear their story. Without comment or “fixing” the problem, you can help by letting someone share their story.
- Ask sincere questions / don’t make judgments: None of us knows the battles others are fighting. If someone seems rude, down, struggling, or off, don’t assume anything about their current mental state. Be politely curious, not judgmental.
- Respect goals: No matter how big or small, progress for a person with a mental health challenge can happen. Some days, a goal may be as simple as getting out of bed, showering, and eating. That is routine for most, but for some, it can be a monumental accomplishment.
- Encourage faith: Whatever a person may believe in – a higher power, their specific religion, secular humanism, science – encourages them to see the good in something. Faith is not a panacea, but it can help.
- Don’t say “just . . . “: Sometimes, well-meaning people will tell others, “Just be happy,” or “Just stop worrying,” or “Just relax.” Would you tell someone with cancer, “Just think it away?” Mental illness cannot just be wished away.
- Do something for someone else: If you’re not feeling your best, find someone you can help. It could be a financial contribution to a charity, helping someone carry a heavy item, volunteering, or giving a hungry person food. A little gesture can help someone else– and you.
- Be Civil: You won’t win a heated argument with someone who = sees the world differently. Listen respectfully without turning every encounter into a debate.
- Don’t offer unwanted advice: Giving someone your unsolicited opinion about their situation can be just as harmful as physically assaulting them. If you have ideas, ask if you can share them before doing so.
- Avoid negative messages: Negative messages, such as “you’re crazy” or “something’s wrong with you,” can land hard on someone. They may internalize them and begin to believe the negative things you have said.
- Take care of the body: Physical health and good nutrition can greatly affect mental health. Take a walk with someone or offer them healthy food.
- Be kind: A little kindness can go a long way. I have talked to people who planned to end their lives on a certain day, only to have one interaction with a stranger to convince them to live another day.
- Know the Number: 988 is a national number anyone can call anytime for mental health support.
Many people look for institutions to solve our mental health crisis. But the problem is too big for all the professionals we could train and all the money the government could throw at it to solve. Yes, we need more mental health professionals, and we need to allocate more resources. But help is much closer to home: You are key to solving the mental health crisis.
Chuck Hall is a certified peer specialist for mental health and works independently as an executive coach and consultant. He helps business leaders and their teams improve performance and well-being. He is a member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the Georgia Consumer Mental Health Network, and the Society for Human Resource Management. He earned a Master of Science degree in Organizational Dynamics from the University of Pennsylvania. He lives with his wife, Amy, son, Carl, and two dogs, Jaina and Maeve, in Conyers, GA. He is also the father of two daughters, Sarah and Jill.
Chuck Hall is a business coach and consultant who works with leaders and their teams. He lives with his wife, Amy, son Carl, and two dogs, Jaina and Maeve, in Conyers, GA. He is also the father of two daughters, Sarah and Jill. Chuck is originally from Doylestown, PA, where he regularly engaged in neighborhood sports with Michael Smerconish in their younger days.