Raising awareness about mental illness and investing in mental health solutions is critical for our community

Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava Since the pandemic began seven months ago, coronavirus has upended so…

Raising awareness about mental illness and investing in mental health solutions is critical for our community
Regional Planning Council selects Commissioner Levine Cava as chair
Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava

Since the pandemic began seven months ago, coronavirus has upended so much of our normal lives. It’s also had what you might call an “X-ray effect” on American society – ruthlessly scanning and exposing the social challenges and ills that for many of us were hidden just out of sight, but a permanent part of life for millions of Americans.

We have seen more vividly than ever the disparities in healthcare access and outcomes, as Black and Hispanic men and women are nearly 5 times as likely to be hospitalized from coronavirus and more likely to die from the virus than white people. We see the consequences of a deeply unequal economy, where 60% of jobs have been recovered for white men and women but only 37% for Black men and women.

And we clearly see a mental health crisis both exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic. Even pre-COVID-19, Miami-Dade had the highest rate of mental illness of any urban community in the country. More than 9% of our residents experience serious mental illness, yet only 1% receive treatment.

As the pandemic wears on, these challenges are only expanding. 53% of adults in the United States reported their mental health has been negatively impacted due to coronavirus in a Kaiser Family Foundation poll in July.

Our mental health epidemic disproportionately affects those most vulnerable – our children and teenagers. An estimated 181,000 children in Florida suffer from severe mental illness.

Now, experts are gravely worried about the long-term mental health impacts of the coronavirus crisis on young people as their regular routines are upended, they feel isolated from friends in a virtual school environment, and their parents grapple with economic uncertainty and unemployment.

A 2018 study found that during the Great Recession, a 5-percentage point increase in national unemployment correlated with a 35% to 50% increase in childhood mental health problems. Clearly our children’s mental health is not immune from the stress and strain of a potentially long-term economic crisis like the one we face now.

Yes despite all the evidence that it’s very much a part of our lives, mental illness is a topic that as a community we tend to shy away from – whether for lack of knowledge, fear of judgement, or uncertainty about where to turn for help.

Mental Illness Awareness Week is an opportunity to draw new attention to the mental health challenges afflicting millions of Americans.

All throughout the week, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) uplifts the voices of those with lived experience with mental illness to talk about the conditions and symptoms that are most prevalent and most misunderstood.

I was proud to host a virtual town hall with Katherine Coppola, the Executive Director of NAMI Miami, and Debra Webb, the Executive Director of Key Clubhouse of South Florida, to share the work of their great organizations providing support for people with mental illness. We also heard from young adults in our community about their own personal experiences with mental illness. Watch the video.

I was also very proud to partner with NAMI Miami to bring an award-winning national program to our community: Ending the Silence, an engaging virtual presentation that educates parents, caregivers, and youth about the warning signs of mental health conditions.

As a social worker I know the critical difference mental health providers can make in these troubled times. We urge anyone who needs help to reach out to a skilled counselor or call 2-1-1, our community hotline. Just talking with someone who cares can help you to stay calm and hopeful. Other resources include the National Suicide Prevention Hotline 800-273-8255, or you can text SIGNS to 741741.

In our own lives we can take small but important steps to combat our mental health crisis simply by being informed about the symptoms and resources; listening to our loved ones; and being kind. I have great hope that we can not only get through this difficult time together, but emerge with a renewed commitment to investing in mental health solutions.

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