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Turning Awareness into Action (Jim Szyperski)

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

May is upon us, which means it’s Mental Health Month again. I think back to last May when we were still early into the pandemic’s onslaught on our collective brains. The stress, fear, and anxiety of a pandemic; the quarantine and isolation; the loss of employment and income; and the pervasive uncertainty about the health of our families and friends were all top of mind. Talk of a vaccine by the end of 2020 or early 2021 seemed a long way off with daily cases of COVID-19 rising and the death toll alarmingly accumulating.

It has been 12 months — just a year — and yet it seems so much longer than that to me. It has been overwhelming in so many ways. Even the most upbeat and resilient people I know have experienced a real pandemic “beat down.”

For those in the behavioral health field, the key message for the past year-plus has been generally centered on mental health awareness here and abroad. That has been important, but also to a great extent an obvious and redundant message as virtually everyone has had their, or their family’s, mental health negatively impacted. The topic of mental health has been daily news almost since the beginning of the pandemic, so if you weren’t aware of the mental health challenges we are facing before, you are aware now.

Mental HealthBut it is time for more than just awareness. In fact, it is well past time for more than awareness. Our mental healthcare system was badly underserved before the pandemic. Now it is completely overwhelmed, and the state of mental health grows worse by the day. Vaccinations and easing of restrictions do not erase a year’s worth of anxiety and depression piled on top of what existed before this public health emergency. Quarantine and social isolation have taken a particular toll on children and adolescents. We will be dealing with mental health issues derived from or accelerated by COVID-19 for many years to come, and unlike in the past, we had better take concrete actions.

Mental healthcare has been the neglected stepchild of our country’s healthcare system and neglected for far too long. There is a chasm between our behavioral healthcare system and the overall physical healthcare system. Yet, mental healthcare is healthcare, and comorbidity statistics ranging from cancer to cardiology to diabetes to substance use uniformly bear that out in plain print. And while there are progressive companies seeking to remedy this issue, the dissociation between mental healthcare and the rest of healthcare is abysmally evident still.

Yes, we are probably all now aware of the mental healthcare crisis. And the awareness is knowledge. It is important, but it is a noun. It is passive. We need a new noun for this May and this Mental Health Month. At nView, the noun we have chosen is action, and it is surrounded by verbs like create, demand, and take.

mental-health-month-2It is time — and it is necessary — to truly make mental healthcare an integrated component of our healthcare conversations and practice. From better technologies to assess, identify, and treat mental health disorders to better solutions to track, monitor, and document patient outcomes, the digital health tools are already here — we just have to integrate them into the daily lives and practices of our healthcare professionals and our own selves.

We are aware, but I am over being aware. It is time for action. Please join us in pushing past awareness to real action. If we can come together, acknowledge the urgency of this second pandemic, and demand tangible changes, maybe we can make next May’s Mental Health Month more one of accountability, both for positive actions taken toward integrated healthcare and for the changes still to be made. There is much to do and it will take time to repair our state of mental health and get to a truly integrated healthcare model, so let’s start.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. – Lao Tzu

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