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Crisis hotline helps, but country must prioritize mental health

Originally published September 7, 2022 in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

How do you define a cultural breaking point? Do you use numbers and statistics? One in 6 youth between the ages of 6-17 experience a mental health disorder every year and suicide is the second leading cause of death among people aged 10-34, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Do you use the rates of fights and aggression in schools? Seventy percent of public schools have reported an increase in youths seeking mental health services in schools, according to the Institute of Education Sciences. Or do you simply talk to people who work with youth and glean that there is a deep sense of unrest among our youth?

No matter the indicator, it seems that something is eating at our kids and we don’t exactly know what. Yes, we know that the pandemic put many of our kids, especially female teens and lower socioeconomic brackets, at risk for anxiety, depression and even suicide. Our youth have borne the brunt of the crisis. But what is at the heart of the problem?

The Biden-Harris administration increased federal investments in the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by 18-fold — from $24 million to $432 million — to scale up crisis centers and backup center capacity, and to provide special services, including a sub-network for Spanish-language speakers. In 2021, the lifeline received 3.6 million calls, chats and texts. That number is expected to at least double within the first full year after the 988 transition, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

But will a three-digit phone number help the situation?

According to the surgeon general, 1 in 3 high school students and half of female students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in 2019, an overall increase of 40% from 2009. Through the history of humanity, people have had times of sadness, discomfort and periods of even depression.

The difference we’re seeing now in our youth is that the reserves that generations in the past have had in their lives to rely on are just no longer present. The difficult year is turning into a reason to end your life by suicide. A season of anger is turning into pulling a gun on a member of the other sports team. A tough month is morphing into cutting of wrists and ankles in violent self-harm.

There are no new feelings under the sun. Human emotions are the same, but the course of action and response in individuals are different than we’ve seen them in modern history.

Social media has been tagged as the culprit in many circles. Rising rates of body image issues, social disconnectedness and a lack of developing age-appropriate social skills have been linked to increased rates of technology and social media usage. Adolescents and teens are growing more dependent on phones and screens for their social interactions outside of the academic setting. We can draw many helpful correlations with screen time and healthy child development; however, the line we draw from technology to poor mental health will never be direct. We will never have direct causation from technology being the sole reason for the emerging teen mental health crisis. It is merely a symptom of a larger issue.

So how do we respond to the plague that seems to be pervading our youth? Is there anything that can be done to address the issue? The Biden administration’s bulk money drop on the suicide and crisis lifeline is a move in the right direction. The funds are allotted to not only provide money for operators answering the phone lines but also for mobile mental health teams to respond if needed. However, the heightened demand for trained professionals comes at an all-time drought of people to work in the industry. One in 3 Americans live in a mental health care worker desert.

Another factor that is a challenge to the helpline being a success is the ability for the line to properly dispatch police if there is a perceived emergency. Historically, Black and brown populations have had a higher risk of being misdiagnosed and even criminalized for mental health emergencies, which could make the population extremely wary of using the helpline.

There is a discrepancy among states for the funding for the national hotline. Beyond the initial investment, will there be funds to sustain the service? 911 has not always been around: In the 1970s, much like the mental health hotline, one had to call a full phone number to reach a local police or fire station to report the need for a rapid response emergency team.

As the 911 hotline became a nationally recognized, utilized and valued service, states began to apply a fee upon phone bills to subsidize the service for everyone in the local areas. The service had to trickle into communities, especially those on the margins.

The presence of a 911 hotline did not decrease the number of house fires. It merely was able to trigger a response and put them out before they burned the whole house down. If we continue to respond to mental health emergencies thinking that putting out emergency mental health fires will decrease the number of mental health issues in our youth, that is arrogant at best and absurd at worst.

The cultural malaise that plagues our youth today has many factors, including but not limited to social isolation, a breakdown of family and community social dependence, and transition to online platforms such as working from home and online appointments, classes and services.

The issue is in large part impacted by the lack of grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors, youth pastors, rabbis, faith communities, coaches and other adults fully integrated and committed into the lives of our youth for years. The price that we are paying for the do-it-yourself culture in which we place ourselves and our kids is the cost of our stable mental health. Life shouldn’t and cannot be built upon self-reliance. Self-reliance is wonderful when we’re taking a test or speaking in public, but not for a life mantra. Until our kids feel like they’re a part of a loving, consistent, stable community, then we won’t see a true change in statistics. To use Hillary Clinton’s famous term, it takes a village. Instead of a culture of doing it yourself, we slowly move toward a culture of you are not alone.

We must recognize the problem of mental health as invasive and address it in a holistic method or there will be no lasting help for the next generation. More money in programs and policies will not solve the problem. Paying more professionals to spend time with our kids will not solve the problem, no matter how good the therapist, counselor, life coach or tutor. Like rewiring a home will decrease the number of emergency calls for house fires per year, we need a total rewire of our view and method of how we raise our kids in society and pursue family. Until then, it’s good to have a hotline.

Please dial 988 if you are having a mental health emergency, experiencing emotional distress, or a suicidal crisis or are concerned about someone who might be. Trained staff are waiting to help you.


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