By Sue Abderholden

Tired. Tired of not being able to be with friends, eat at our favorite restaurants, see a movie in the theater, or go to a concert. Physical distancing has been really hard. Add to that the impact of COVID-19 on our schools, jobs and important ritual such as weddings, graduations and funerals, and it’s no surprise that our collective mental health is being negatively impacted.

Last week the CDC confirmed what we all sensed – 40.9% of respondents reported at least one adverse mental health or substance use condition. People shared that due to the pandemic, they were having symptoms of anxiety, depression, trauma, or a stress-related disorder. People reported using substances to help cope with living in a pandemic.

What was especially troubling was the increase in the number of people who had thoughts of suicide in the past 30 days. This was particularly true for young adults (18-24), people of color, unpaid caregivers for adults and essential workers.

This information calls out for a larger response to the pandemic to support people’s mental health. The researchers recommended “strengthening economic supports, addressing stress from experiences racial discrimination, promoting social connectedness, and supporting persons at risk for suicide.” So far, few actions have been taken on these recommendations.

Last week the Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) Consortium released its survey findings. The survey was conducted at nine public research universities, including the University of Minnesota. Their research found 35% of undergraduate students screened positive for depression and 32% of graduate and professional students. For anxiety they found 39% screened positive.

They also found that the prevalence of depression and anxiety among graduate and professional students was higher as well – 2 times higher for depression and 1.5 times higher for anxiety than just a year ago. What is not surprising is that who is impacted more is similar to the CDC study – students of color, low-income students, LGBTQA students and students who are caregivers. For students who did not adapt well to remote or online learning, they had higher rates of depression and anxiety. With colleges and universities trying to open in the next few days – these statistics are important to keep in the forefront.

So now that studies have verified what we intuitively thought was happening – based on our own feelings and interactions with family members, fellow students, co-workers and friends – what do we do?

  • Reach in. If you know someone is struggling do not wait for them to contact you. Call them, encourage them to take a walk with you and to reach out for help.
  • Know the signs of suicide. The information is posted on the NAMI Minnesota website. We are also offering free suicide prevention classes. Take one.
  • Know the suicide helpline numbers. Put these numbers in your phone: 1-800273-8255 or text MN to 741-741.
  • Take care of yourself. It’s about being mindful – of what we eat or drink, of moving every day by walking or dancing, of getting a good night’s sleep, of staying socially connected.

On a higher level, our local, state and federal governments must step up and make sure our already fragile mental health system is equipped to address the increased needs. That means providing funding for personal protection equipment, making sure that devices given to students can download the apps used by mental health providers, providing gap funding from when they lost income due to changes in delivery of services, providing “hazard” pay, and providing funding for devices for people who do not have smart phones, tablets or computers. Our mental health system could barely meet the needs before COVID-19, and it will need additional funding to meet these increased needs.

While we need to focus on preventing the spread of the coronavirus, let us not forget our mental health and our mental health system. We don’t want to lose more lives due to the pandemic.

(Sue Abderholden is NAMI Minnesota’s executive director)