By Paula Goldstein
When COVID hit in 2020, the collective trauma over this mysterious illness led to a rise in what was already a serious challenge for all of us and our families, namely, our mental health.
Our minds needed to grapple with the ongoing news reports of people getting sick and dying with no treatment forthcoming for a significant amount of time. For those who had experienced significant traumas at other times in their lives, the pandemic only served as a trigger for retraumatization, something that mental health professionals are all too familiar with.
What happens to a person who has had continuous mental health challenges, perhaps for months or years and then has to absorb more contributors to overall mental well-being such as disruption in school schedules, remote working, the end of after-school activities and social opportunities, not to mention interruptions in attending college, not being able to see elderly parents, and the closing of one’s business since no one is going out of their homes.
What we see is exactly what is happening in our community today — a flooded mental health system with not enough clinicians in the pipeline to supply the mental health care that is needed.
Looking back, prepandemic we were already in a mental health crisis. The ability to find an affordable therapist covered by insurance was almost nonexistent. If a person had the resources to pay for services “out of pocket” then they stood a chance of being seen.
When you add children and teens to the mix, the number of available and skilled therapists drops dramatically. We know from more recent statistics that one in six children ages 5-16 are likely to have a mental health problem. We also know that in a classroom of 30 kids, five will be struggling with mental health challenges.
For parents who were struggling to work remotely during the pandemic while supervising their children as they learned on Zoom, if they did not already have existing struggles with anxiety, depression or other disorders, they probably did due to the stress that families were experiencing for months and months.
We are seeing the aftermath of this chaos now and children and adults alike are finding themselves on waiting lists to see a therapist. For some, the wait is not comfortable, but they can manage until the appointment comes through. For others, this phenomenon is more concerning and dangerous as the only other choice for a person who is having a significant mental health crisis is a visit to the emergency room of a hospital to supply stabilization until a therapist can be seen.
One positive thing that came out of the pandemic was the ability for many young people to begin to open up and show their vulnerability in relation to their own mental health through social media outlets. Platforms such as TikTok, Instagram and Facebook gave rise to many sharing their struggles openly and encouraging others who were experiencing similar challenges to seek help. This served as a major contributor to cutting stigma, which is its own obstacle for some in need of mental health care.
The primary issue is that there simply is not enough mental health care in most communities. For providers, the amount of reimbursement from insurance companies pales in relation to the amount of time spent with an individual in care causing many practitioners to only accept private pay, eliminating the option to be seen for so many. Even if one can be seen by paying out of pocket, the waiting lists are long. Can someone delay a full-blown emotional crisis until they are able to get an appointment — most likely not.
Communities need to find ways to spread the support to many so that a village model can exist is caring for those who need mental health support. More training in mental health for primary care physicians, nurses, teachers, camp counselors, day care centers and YMCAs is needed to be able to sustain crises until more resources are available.
We have long surpassed the time when only a psychiatrist, psychologist or social worker can engage with someone who has mental health challenges. Imagine if a synagogue community, rabbi, educators and congregants had mental health first aid training and began to think differently about offering support to its members who were struggling.
And what if, when a teen went to school, teachers and students were more aware of signs of mental health crisis and had the ability to address them in a normative day-to-day way? Offering education to preschool children around emotional well-being and universalizing mental health challenges to everyone at one point or another could change the dialogue in classrooms, enabling educators and kids alike to supply support and guidance in an integrated way.
Different times call for different measures and we are definitely in those times now. Emotional health is an everyone issue — imagine embracing it as just that and creating a language by which institutions and communities work to support each other.
Paula Goldstein is the CEO of Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Philadelphia.