Mental Health Awareness Month: Focusing on America's Mental Health Crisis

Mental Health Awareness Month: Focusing on America's Mental Health Crisis

Content Warning: Discussion of mental illness and suicide throughout.

As May unfolds, our nation again turns its gaze towards an issue affecting every corner of American society – mental health. Mental Health Awareness Month serves as a poignant reminder of the challenges millions of Americans face, the urgent need for action, and what we are doing here in the Commonwealth to address this crisis.

The state of mental health in America is both complex and concerning. One stark statistic reveals that about 50% of Americans grappling with a substance use disorder also battle a mental illness (all statistics in this article come from the Pew Charitable Trusts and National Alliance on Mental Illness). This dual struggle creates a two-front crisis, compounding the challenges of treatment and care. However, there is hope in solutions such as integrating mental health care into opioid treatment programs, potentially saving countless lives.

Another alarming trend is the rise in suicide deaths by firearm, which increased by 11% from 2019 to 2022. In Virginia, that number was 718 suicides in 2022. Mental illness often plays a role in suicide risk, compounded by factors such as increased gun ownership during the pandemic. Healthcare providers can play a crucial role in saving lives by screening patients for suicide risk and assisting gun owners in developing firearm safety plans.

The intersection of mental illness and the criminal justice system paints a bleak picture, with Americans experiencing mental illness being jailed over 2 million times annually. Law enforcement officers frequently find themselves as the first—and sometimes only—responders to mental health crises, stretching resources thin and diverting attention from other public safety matters. Addressing this issue requires a multifaceted approach, including improved mental health care access and community-based crisis intervention programs.

Workplace stress is another significant contributor to mental health challenges, with 84% of Americans reporting that work negatively impacts their mental well-being. However, there is a growing awareness of the link between work and mental health, with both employees and leaders recognizing the importance of fostering a mentally healthy workforce. Normalizing conversations about mental health in the workplace is a critical step toward creating a culture of support and understanding.

Perhaps most distressing is the fact that suicide is the third-leading cause of death for Americans aged 10 to 24. Suicide rates are rising across all demographics, with certain groups, including LGBTQ+ youth and students of color, facing disproportionately high risk. The American Academy of Pediatrics has declared this a public health crisis and recommends screening for suicide risk as a vital strategy for increasing access to care. Fifty percent of all lifetime mental illnesses begin by age 14, and 75% by age 24. And while 1 in 6 U.S. youth experience a mental health condition each year, only half of them receive treatment. In 2020, there was a 31% increase in mental health-related emergency department visits among adolescents. These statistics reveal an alarming mental health crisis for young people that must be addressed.

This year in the General Assembly we made progress to improve mental healthcare and the significant workforce shortage that continues to impact access to these critical services. The Governor signed a bill allowing mental health facilities to accept a minor for inpatient mental health treatment for either mental health or substance use treatment. The General Assembly passed a bill to provide fairer pay and benefits for nursing staff at state psychiatric hospitals. We reformed the temporary detention order process to allow alternative transportation providers other than law enforcement. Stigmatization is often a significant barrier to receiving treatment. We passed legislation allowing schools to expand the mental health services they offer students by contracting with telehealth providers. While not a substitute for face-to-face services, telehealth improves accessibility. The House sent several proposals relating to the K-12 funding formula, including counselor-to-student ratios and additional support staff such as school psychologists, nurses, and social workers to the Joint Subcommittee to Study Elementary and Secondary Education Funding. Its first report is due on Nov. 1.

During the Reconvene session, the General Assembly rejected the Governor’s amendments to a bill prohibiting carrying weapons in hospitals providing mental health services, requiring mental health awareness training for public school teachers and staff, and to an omnibus public school staffing and funding bill, encompassing issues such as hiring additional counselors, testing coordinators, and licensed behavior analysts. Both now await the Governor’s final decision.

In December, the governor proposed $15 million for grants to health centers and organizations to provide mental health services to schools. The General Assembly’s budget calls for that funding to go toward creating school-based health clinics that would provide mental health services in addition to primary and other care to students, their families, and staff. Despite different approaches favored by the Governor and General Assembly, it is clear that our leaders are eager to put forward comprehensive solutions to this problem. Ahead of us, the General Assembly will return to Richmond next week to take a second look at the biennial budget, which will undoubtedly contain vital funding aimed at mental healthcare.

Mental Health Awareness Month is a call to action for individuals, communities, and policymakers alike. By confronting the challenges head-on, fostering understanding and empathy, and implementing evidence-based solutions, we can keep the focus on prioritizing mental health, eradicating its stigma, and ensuring that every individual has access to necessary care and support.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis: Call, chat, or text 988 to speak with a trained crisis counselor 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.