by Nathan Taylor, assistant professor of family services
While society is inundated with discussions of masks, vaccines, immunity and all matters of social distancing, omitted from the conversations of health is the leading cause of disability worldwide. How can we not discuss the illness that impairs more people than any other?
No, I am not talking about heart disease, cancer or obesity, which while infamous are all secondary to the illnesses few talk about. Thriving in anonymity is the leading cause of disability worldwide: mental health problems. So as the country continues to reopen, how can we include mental health as a priority to healthy living?
First, if a family member, friend or you are worried about your mental health, seek professional care.
I know this is often easier said than done. Throughout the country, access to mental health providers is difficult. Lack of providers, cost or being put on a waitlist all hinder access to care. Access to mental health providers is especially problematic in rural states like Iowa where 94 of the 99 counties have an insufficient number of providers to meet population need.
Even when services are available, many struggle with challenges related to acceptability of mental health services. While it is decreasing and will continue to do so, some experience stigma associated with seeking mental health care. People do not want to be seen as weak, are scared of others finding out or believe that they can handle it on their own. Some can engage in self-help strategies to address mental illness, but many cannot and continue to suffer rather than seeking care. We will need to help minimize stigma by sharing our own stories of mental health problems, celebrating those that seek care, and being empathetic to those that are struggling.
Lucky for us, the current pandemic-that-shall not-be-named removed some of the hurdles of seeking mental health care. With offices being closed and providing care still required, mental health clinicians across the country transitioned to delivering services virtually. This means that even when there aren’t providers in your community or you are worried about others finding out, mental health providers are available without you even leaving your home.
As a telemental health researcher, I will address the question I most often get. Does it really work? For the majority of mild to moderate mental health symptoms, the answer is unequivocally yes!
The second way we can add priority to mental health as we emerge from this pandemic is to remember this valuable lesson: We need connection.
As we have been isolated from our families, friends and community members, many have recognized that one of our most basic and vital needs is connection.
It has been amazing to see the innovative ways people remained connected.
School teachers became parade participants, families engaged in virtual game nights, neighbors dropped treats off on the front porch, and the elderly received care packages.
The creation and maintenance of healthy
relationships is one of our greatest neutralizers to mental health challenges. This is the focus of the family services program at UNI, where each year graduates disperse into the workforce with the mission to strengthen individual, family and community relationships.
So let’s celebrate some of the good that came during these trying times. First, mental health services are now more accessible than ever. Help is available from the comfort of your living room and without you ever needing to change out of your pajamas. Do your part to minimize stigma about mental health by encouraging loved ones to seek care. Second, we were reminded of the importance of connection. Find ways to remember how special it is to be together with friends, family and neighbors, and devote effort to strengthen your important relationships.
I hope we don’t return to normal after all of this, but instead spring forward to a time where mental health is rightfully included in conversations of healthy living. Because there is no health without mental health.
For more stories about CSBS faculty, students and alumni, visit csbs.uni.edu/magazine.