By Vin Gopal – May is Mental Health Awareness Month and it’s a good time to take a look at how we think of our own mental health, and try to better understand people in our families and communities facing the challenges of depression, isolation, substance abuse disorder and other forms of mental illness.
Mental illness reaches into every corner of the community. Chances are good that each of us probably know someone who has struggled with mental illness. It may be a family member fighting substance abuse disorder, a coworker who can’t concentrate on tasks, a friend from school who has become withdrawn, or a parent in a long-term care facility who feels isolated.
The number of people suffering from mental illness has grown substantially over the past decade across the country and in New Jersey. In Monmouth County, with a population around 600,000 at the time, there were more than 47,000 mental health-related visits to emergency rooms from 2013 to 2017. That was before the pandemic.
COVID-19 created “a parallel pandemic” of loneliness, stress, anxiety, depression, behavioral challenges and substance abuse, according to Christine Norbut Beyer, Commissioner of the NJ Department of Children and Families. She testified recently when the Senate Education Committee convened a special panel to address growing concern about the pandemic’s impact on the mental health of children and teens.
Commissioner Norbut Beyer and other mental health experts told the committee that the rate of mental illness in children, already alarming when COVID-19 hit, spiked in the past two years. The increase has raised the need for more mental health emergency resources such as inpatient psychiatric beds for children and adolescents. In addition to more access to professional counselors and clinicians in schools, and to more child and adolescent psychiatrists, the experts said the state needs to improve parity in insurance coverage for mental health.
Improving mental health services is one of my top priorities during the State Budget talks going on in Trenton now, and it’s a legislative priority all the time.
The Senate Education Committee is likely to consider my bill to require health insurance carriers to provide coverage for treatment of mental health conditions and substance use disorders through collaborative care. Often there is more than one cause of mental illness, and the collaborative care model brings together a patient’s primary care provider and a care manager collaborating with a psychiatric consultant to provide care.
Suffering from depression and experiencing the impact of mental illness personally, as well as listening to the mental health experts, advocates and the families with a loved one battling mental illness, has taught me that treating it isn’t a one-person job. It’s a community effort – where all of us come together to be more accepting, to create an environment that removes the stigma of mental illness and is more supportive of mental health and recovery efforts.
If someone you know is suffering from mental illness, encourage them to call their healthcare provider, or a mental health clinic, or local hospital. NJ 2-1-1 is a good place to start. You can find resources in your area or chat online with a mental health professional at nj211.org. You can dial 2-1-1 to speak with a resource specialist who will help you find information or immediate help 24 hours a day. The service is free, confidential and multilingual.