A silent crisis has arrived. About 30% of Washingtonians (between 2 million and 2.5 million people) are currently experiencing symptoms of anxiety, depression or both, according to the most recent Pulse Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau and various tracking studies monitored by the state Department of Health.
Since the first U.S. coronavirus cases were reported early last year, we have seen a growing stream of people seeking mental health services, and, importantly, an increase in visits to hospital emergency rooms by people with mental health issues. In fact, according to recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data gathered this February and March, there has been a 51% increase in the number of emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts among girls, aged 12-17, across the U.S. (compared with the same period in 2019)
While our success with vaccinations is already helping the people of Washington state return to some sense of physical normalcy, mental and behavioral health issues are expected to continue to grow for some time. That is because COVID-19 is just one of the “global pandemics” with which all of us have had to cope, particularly people who have been historically disenfranchised and underserved.
We are living at the intersection of many powerful sources of “disease.” The pandemics of systemic racism, economic and social inequities, dramatic political polarization and, yes, a physical virus all represent real threats to our mental and emotional well-being. Any one of these challenges is enough to send us into anxiety, depression and worse, as our subconscious minds have been hypervigilant for far too long. Taken together they represent a dangerous cocktail of chronic concern that has pushed many to a point of serious consequence.
How can we respond to this growing crisis?
To begin with, we cannot expect the “system” to fix a challenge of this size and scope. Our front-line social workers, psychiatrists and psychologists are doing outstanding work in incredibly challenging times, but simply no mental or behavioral health system in the world is capable of serving more than half of a community’s population effectively — particularly one that has so many geographic and economic barriers to accessing care. We must look somewhere else for real solutions. We must find an alternative approach to engage people wherever they are, and to provide solace, respite and the kind of support that will help them recover and build resilience.
The most powerful yet untapped mental health resource available to the people of Washington state is … the people of Washington state.
Research shows that meaningful human connections are an essential element to our mental and emotional well-being. And, if we have learned anything through this pandemic it is that we need each other — now more than ever.
The good news is we do not have to be experts to provide enormous benefit to people who are struggling. Each of us simply has to care, make the effort to reach out, listen intently to what a person is going through and, if asked, help them to problem-solve a path to resilience.
Last month a dynamic and diverse collection of people and professionals from across our state did just that. They launched an innovative new campaign to address our growing mental health crisis and build resilience across our state. A Mindful State (www.amindfulstate.org) is their creation. It is a free, people-powered platform to help Washingtonians by:
∙ Connecting us through deeply personal communications and conversations.
∙ Empowering us with tools that help build resilience for ourselves and our communities.
∙ Activating us to help one another by suggesting simple but powerful acts of kindness and caring.
A Mindful State is fueled by the lived experiences of people across our state who share personal stories of their own struggles and triumphs. Lyle Quasim, one of my predecessors at the Department of Social and Health Services and a longtime member of the Tacoma-Pierce County Black Collective, explains its intent beautifully: “A Mindful State has woven together a rich tapestry of personal stories and expert advice that shows each of us that we are not alone, but part of something bigger than ourselves — and connected to each other in ways we never realized.”
I strongly encourage everyone to visit A Mindful State and see for yourself what we can do when we work together. I am convinced that this approach is not only a powerful way to help all of us build toward recovery and resilience, it begins to address the real issues that lie at the root of the pandemics of racism, economic disparity and political polarization in the first place.
We need each other — now more than ever. A Mindful State is a necessary first step to bringing all of us together around the critical common cause of collective mental well-being. I hope you will visit it.