What Will It Take, America? - OZY | A Modern Media Company
SourceImages Shutterstock, Composite Sean Culligan/OZY

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because millions of lives have been lost to deaths of despair.

By Dr. Benjamin F. Miller

The marginalization of mental health in this country is nothing new. I’ve seen it play out time and again through insulting amounts of federal funding and countless examples of it being used for political leverage.

The way mental health is being weaponized today, however, to reopen the economy, to send children back to schools and to publicly shame someone’s son and insinuate it’s the parent’s fault that their child struggled with addiction, is enough to leave anyone speechless.

But this is not a time for silence. This is a time for cold, hard, undisputed facts. And the facts are: More than 200,000 people, including mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, have died from COVID-19, simultaneously sending thousands more who may have already been struggling to cope with a mental health or substance use disorder into mourning.

The same virus that killed those loved ones has also shuttered businesses from coast to coast, stripping business owners of a sense of purpose and, at peak, pushing 20.5 million Americans to the unemployment line. We’ve made economic improvements since those early days, but the impact of that trauma lingers.

There’s no question that with the addition of this pandemic, mental health in America is only going to get worse.

In June, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 41 percent of adults were experiencing mental health or substance misuse problems, and that 26 percent of those ages 18 to 24 had thought about suicide. In July, 53 percent of adults reported how their mental health had been negatively affected by COVID-19 — almost 20 percent higher than when the pandemic began in March — and more than a quarter of a million people completed depression screeners on Mental Health America’s website, the platform’s highest reach in six years. A JAMA study published in September also found that symptoms of depression have increased threefold compared to what they were before COVID-19.

There’s no question that with the addition of this pandemic, mental health in America is only going to get worse. This means that our May prediction of the worst-case scenario, that COVID-19 would nationally cause another epidemic of deaths of despair linked to alcohol, drugs or suicide, could actually become the best-case scenario.

It’s no wonder why. We have failed to create seamless ways for people to be diagnosed, treated or receive follow-up care. But the biggest barrier for so many is coverage, and coverage is what’s on the line if the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is repealed.

The ACA has proved a game-changer for mental health by establishing that mental health services are, correctly, essential health benefits — that individuals with mental health or addiction diagnoses are not discriminated against by their health insurer because they have either illness as a preexisting condition. Said differently, an ACA repeal would mean that coverage for mental health and substance use disorders, that the decadelong fight for mental health parity and that Medicaid expansion — Medicaid is the largest payer for mental health and substance use disorders — all instantly evaporate. Gone, leaving nothing but some of the most devastating effects on mental health this nation has ever seen.

We are regressing at the worst possible time for us to do so, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that thousands of lives hang in the balance — the lives of mothers, fathers, sons and daughters who could easily fall. Is failing to do anything to address America’s escalating mental health crisis worth those losses?

The answer needs to be no.

Dr. Benjamin F. Miller is the chief strategy officer for Well Being Trust and an advisory board member of Inseparable, two of the nation’s leading mental health organizations.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories