Editorial: Sanity in addressing mental health crisis

The Island Now

We are in the midst of a mental health crisis. The proof is found in anecdotes that accumulate by the day.

A man believed mentally ill pushes a woman to her death in Times Square. Another takes hostages in a synagogue in Texas. The list goes on and on and on.

The proof is also in studies.

The United States’ surgeon general in December warned that young people are facing “devastating” mental health effects as a result of the challenges experienced by their generation, including the coronavirus pandemic.

The rare public advisory by Dr. Vivek H. Murthy cited significant increases in self-reports of depression and anxiety along with more emergency room visits for mental health issues.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Facebook studies have shown that Instagram, which it owns, is causing serious mental health problems, particularly for teenage girls. And the social media giant is doing nothing about it.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams said several months ago many of the inmates at Rikers Island, the hell hole on East River, are suffering from mental health issues.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that 100,000 people had died of drug overdose deaths in the United States in the 12-month period ending in April 2021, an increase of 28.5 percent over the same period the year before.

The list of studies goes on as well.

The good news is that thanks to COVID the profile of mental health issues has been raised.

“If you ask the average person who considers themselves to be well-adjusted whether they have suffered anxiety or depression over the course of the past 18 months, I think nearly everybody would say yes and if they say no they’re probably detached from reality or not telling the truth,” Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds, the president and CEO of the Family and Children’s Association in Garden City, explained at a Blank Slate Media virtual town hall last Thursday.

Reynolds and Andrew Malekoff, editor-in-chief of Social Work with Groups and the former CEO of the North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center, said government has responded with funding for schools and community groups to address the needs of students and families.

The bad news is the ongoing problems with insurance companies refusing to cover conditions “above the neck in the same way they cover other conditions” as required by state law, Reynolds said.

Malekoff said this failure is ignored by state officials who could provide families with the help they need for a broad range of mental problems, including addiction and depression.

“Insurance companies and the government are not living up to their responsibility to provide people with quality, affordable and timely mental health and addictions care even though they are legally bound to,” Malekoff said.

Those affected the most are people not poor enough to receive government assistance and not rich enough to be able to afford the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars needed for treatment.

This is a problem that every legislator should be pressed to correct.

Reynolds said these services will be especially important in coming years to cope with the effects of the coronavirus, which he said will be with us for years to come.

Dr. Liat Jarkon, the director of the Center for Behavioral Health and an assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the New York Institute of Technology, told the town hall audience that another problem is the lack of trained professionals to meet the growing demand for mental health services.

Jarkon said the waiting list to see therapists can run six months – far too long to address people with serious issues that need more immediate attention.

The shortage of trained professionals has gotten worse during the pandemic due to the low pay of health care workers who find other jobs paying the same with far less stress.

The answer, Reynolds said, is for the state to provide funding to pay mental health professionals more.

Adding to the need for people with mental health training is how we respond to crime.

Police do not have – and should not be expected to have – the training to address people with mental health problems.

That lack of training can often result in unnecessarily escalating a situation, sometimes with tragic results for the person with mental health problems, family members or even the police.

In New York City, Adams intends to have mental health professionals accompany police to scenes in which illness rather than criminal behavior is the cause.

This is a smart reform that should be followed in Nassau County.

Nassau County should also help implement the use of 988 as a nationwide mental health crisis and suicide prevention number.

The implementation plan approved by the Federal Communications Commission establishes a two-year timeline to make 988 operational nationwide (by July 16, 2022), with calls routed through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

“Once fully implemented, 988 will save lives and is a critical component to ensuring people in crisis are diverted from involvement in the criminal justice system and connected to appropriate services and supports,” Daniel H. Gillison Jr., National Alliance on Mental Health CEO, said in a recent article.

Referring to a recent op-ed by Gillison, Jarkon said: “People in a crisis need help, not handcuffs.

“A lot of times when there is a mental health crisis, the first thing people do is call 911 because they don’t know what else to do,” Jarkon said. “And law enforcement has acknowledged that they are not trained  sufficiently to deal with mental illness.”

Suffolk County is already working on a crisis stabilization facility that is designed as an alternative to going to the emergency room to deal with mental health issues.

The three town hall panelists also agreed that teachers, guidance counselors, pediatricians and parents could play an important role in identifying and responding to children with mental health problems.

The panelists said all these groups can fairly easily screen children for issues in their lives that may be impacting their mental health.

These factors, they said, included COVID, social media and the fear of gun violence in school amplified by active-shooter drills as well as events in their personal lives.

Jarkon said this screening could be as simple as asking someone if everything was all right and, in some cases, if they ever thought of harming themselves.

All three panelists called for referring people with mental health issues to organizations such as FCA and the North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center. Jarkon said the New York Institute of Technology website had a list of places that offered mental health services.

For too long mental health issues have carried a stigma while their impact has been grossly underestimated.

It’s time for us to recognize the full scale of the mental health emergency in our communities so that it can be understood the way addiction now seems to be in the wake of the drug crisis.

TAGGED: mental health
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