The aftershocks of the pandemic continue to challenge us in the area of mental health.

However, it is unwise to place all the blame on the pandemic for the worsening mental health issues in the United States. Prior to the pandemic, rates of mental illness in the United States were slowly increasing. Mental Health America estimated that 19.86% of adult Americans experienced mental health issues.

Coming out of COVID-19, however, incidents of mental health crises have basically doubled. In the past year, over 40% of Americans have reported symptoms of depression and anxiety. These numbers are worrying, but even more troubling are the results of research among young people.

Even more worrying are the reported rates of feelings of persistent sadness and hopelessness among teen aged girls. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 60% of teen girls have struggled emotionally coming out of the pandemic. Additionally, 30% of teenage girls reported thoughts of suicide. This number is an 11-point increase from a decade ago.

Contributing to these figures are the statistics focused on violence against women, with 20% of U.S. women reporting rape or some form of sexual violence in the past year. Drawing the circle to include teen boys, the overall rates drop a little but are still high (20%).

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for teens and young adults, the CDC reported. Half of LGBTQ students during this same time have reported that they have considered suicide.

So, what are some of the other non-pandemic reasons for an increasing number of symptomatic folks in our nation?

For LGBTQ individuals, it is also about a hostile culture which has declared war on them and labeled them all as “trans,” whether or not such a label fits. Like all labels, it is punitive and toxic.

To find oneself a target day in and day out because of one’s efforts to reconcile their anatomically assigned gender and their lived gender, is a war few others in our society endure.

Social media also factors into the rise in mental illness. While a lifeline during the pandemic for “social contact,” social media influences in some powerfully negative ways. Social media can discourage teens and young adults about beauty, style, physical appearance and “being cool.” This has long been a challenge for young women, and now young men are also feeling the pressure.

Images of male stars who find reasons to take off their shirts and other apparently unnecessary clothes are commonplace. In fact, this hyperfocus on men’s bodies have introduced a great deal of anxiety and some rising issues with body dysmorphia. Recently, more than one of my clients have indicated that they struggle with the way their body looks. Male stars are also feeling the pressure to be more muscular, with six pack abs. The stress is difficult to manage.

The mental health of the United States in 2023 looks significantly different than it did in 2019. Surprisingly, the therapeutic community is struggling to catch up, stay up and manage their caseloads to keep themselves healthy as they help others regain their own mental health.

The most common mental health diagnoses in the United States are substance abuse, anxiety disorders, depression, bipolar and schizophrenia.

In the prison system, because of the history of some offenders with illicit drugs and its corrosive effect on the brain, clients were given a schizoaffective disorder diagnosis because of what the drugs had done to their brains. So, they presented with systems of depression, anxiety, mania, psychosis or delusions. The shizo-affective disorder covered all the bases.

The vast majority of 911 calls (up to 97%) have nothing to do with crime or citizen safety. A significant number of those calls are related to substance abuse and mental health crises.

This is why a nationwide suicide prevention hotline number has been instituted. “988” will connect the caller to non-law enforcement resources. Reports are that up to 90% of the calls fielded are resolved in that call.

So, what can we do this month to improve our mental health?

First, we can take steps to address our isolation and loneliness if those have crept in because of the isolation of the pandemic.

Relational “muscles” need to be exercised and practiced or, like our physical muscles, they will atrophy. While many faith communities have developed effective methods for streaming services, in-person attendance is still more powerful. Reconnecting is powerful, and any way we can do that will help our overall mental health.

Second, as we come into the end of spring and enter into summer, getting outdoors can help us connect with nature and the benefits of being in nature. Exercise of any kind stimulates the body and brain, releasing endorphins which are known as the “feel good neurotransmitters.”

Third, therapy or counseling can often open the door to feeling less depressed, anxious and alone. Resources are generally widely available. Online resources have blossomed during the pandemic, expanding the reach of counseling and therapy into underserved areas.

Psychotropic medications provide relief for many of the mental health diagnoses. The more complex mental illness most often needs the care of a psychiatrist. However, combining the disciplines of psychiatry and talk therapy provides great improvement for many, many folks.

May is Mental Health Month. So, ask yourself, “How am I doing mentally, relationally and emotionally?” If you don’t like your answers, help is available.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week calling attention to May as Mental Health Month. The previous article in the series is:

Churches Can Help ‘Stamp Out Stigma’ Around Mental Health | Starlette Thomas

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