The need for a stronger emphasis on mental health in upcoming election

The need for a stronger emphasis on mental health in upcoming election
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As the 2020 presidential candidates continue to unveil their vision for ensuring health-care coverage for all, although varied in their approaches, candidates have vowed to provide health-care coverage through several governments or other funding options. 

While mental health considerations may be embedded in these options, a more robust public discourse on our nation’s mental health crisis is needed. Regardless of political affiliation or position on health-care coverage, the issue of mental health deserves our utmost attention and allocation of resources. 

According to the 2019 report, "The State of Mental Health in America” affirmed that over 10.3 million adults have serious thoughts of suicide, and more than 10 million adults do not receive needed mental health treatment. The prevalence of mental health issues among today’s youth has increased. 

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While the rise in significant depression rose from 8.6 percent to 13.1 percent from 2012 to 2017 in youth ages 12-17, today, more than 2 million youth experience some form of major depression; only 28.2 percent are receiving consistent treatment. The increased suicide rates among children and teens are even more disturbing. 

In 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the suicide rate for children and youth ages 10-24 increased by 56 percent in the past two decades. Given the stigma associated with mental health conditions and possible underreporting, these numbers may not reflect on the overall magnitude of this issue. 

In the United States, we are all too familiar with mass shootings, multiple police-involved shootings, and other events where a possible mental health condition has been cited as a contributing factor. 

Perhaps less publicized are the everyday occurrences where communities and families are grappling with how to identify and address mental health issues in their own homes.

In Chicago on Jan. 2, 2019, the recent death of two children, along with injuries inflicted on other household members, left neighbors wondering if a mental health issue was involved. This is one of many instances where a mental health condition may not have been identified or if so, not adequately treated. 

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Regardless of national notoriety or lack hereof, mental health issues are real. I know firsthand as my mother suffered from schizophrenia, a condition I knew little about even though I am a health-care professional. 

Part of my reluctance to fully recognize the symptoms were due to my inability to accept the truth that a mental health condition had resurfaced again in my own family. Such reluctance to face reality coupled with the shame of having a family member with a mental illness did little to help confront the issue head-on. 

As a health-care professional, I am encouraged to see that access to health care continues to be a priority during the upcoming presidential election. However, we need to broaden our perspective on health to include a stronger emphasis on mental health issues. 

While several mental health conditions are implicated when horrific things take place, mental health concerns are a day to day reality for people who are not out to harm others. Consider individuals who are struggling to make ends meet, the educated professional pressured to achieve, the neighbor grieving over the loss of a loved one, bullied children with suicidal ideations, family members, loved ones, co-workers, and even ourselves may need some form of mental health intervention. 

The issue of mental health has become so important that some have suggested that the nation could benefit from having a mental health czar

The mental health czar would serve in a similar capacity with authority and responsibilities on par with the nation’s surgeon general but with the expertise needed to oversee the public’s mental health care. 

Realizing the gravity of mental health issues and the fragmentation of behavioral health services, California appointed its first mental health czar in 2019 to help improve mental health services and outcomes throughout the state. 

As presidential candidates share their platforms for improving access to care and other health-related issues, they are well-posed to acknowledge mental health as a critical component to overall health and well-being. 

Moving forward, we need open and specific dialogue about mental health issues with a strong focus on prevention and early intervention. New initiatives to reframe health from this perspective are critical to improving the nation’s health. 

Our ability to ensure access to quality mental health services, be it prevention or treatment, is as critical as our efforts to provide access to quality medical care. Anything less has the potential to perpetuate the ongoing silence, shame, and stigma surrounding mental health issues. 

Janice Phillips, RN, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Rush University College of Nursing, and the director of nursing research and health equity at the Rush University Medical Center.