It's become a cliché to say that the past 18 months have had an unprecedented and unfathomable impact on us - as a society and as individuals. Collectively, we have experienced the COVID-19 pandemic, loss of loved ones, the climate crisis hitting home, a devastated economy, a racial reckoning and deepening cultural and political divides....
The list goes on and seems to keep getting longer.
The impact on our mental health has been immediate, and the long-term effects are unknown. Over the past year, I've learned so much about mental health, from both a personal and a professional perspective.
On the personal front, I lost a dear friend to suicide when the isolation of the pandemic lockdown exacerbated long-time mental health challenges. And as a mom of two teen girls, not a single day has gone by without worrying about their well-being as they've navigated teenage life during a pandemic. While our family has all the privileges one could hope for, the lack of social engagement during formative adolescent years has been an ongoing challenge.
When I speak with other parents in my community, the topic of youth mental health is part of almost every conversation. These conversations are generally with people who are fortunate to have good health insurance and resources to pay for care, but despite that, finding a mental health provider is nearly impossible.
Professionally, my organization, Panorama, hosted The Upswing Fund for Adolescent Mental Health, which provides funding to organizations serving the mental health needs of adolescents who are of color and/or LGBTQ+. Through this work, I've learned how weak the mental health infrastructure was even before COVID-19, and how little appropriate care is available to those who need it most.
Truly effective care demands an understanding of the unique societal contexts that shape and influence how youth move through their worlds, including the intersectionality of race, socioeconomic status, gender identity, and lived experience. The communities that are most intersectional already have lower access to care, and the demand for services over the past year has further strained an already broken system.
The challenge of finding mental health services is even more difficult globally, which I learned through my role as board president of American Friends of United for Global Mental Health. The problem of limited services are often compounded by repressive legal systems. A recent report found that suicide is a criminal offence in 20 countries, with some of the legislation dating back 160 years. These laws don't deter people from taking their own lives, but they do "deter them from seeking help in a moment of acute crisis."
The criminalization of suicide is counter-productive and plays a significant role in stigmatizing mental health. Similarly, the criminalization of same-sex relationships still exists in 67 countries, according to Outright International. These punitive laws expose millions of individuals not only to increased stigma and social isolation, but also arrest, prosecution, imprisonment and in some countries, even the death penalty.
Last week, the World Health Organization issued their Mental Health Atlas, which they described as painting "a disappointing picture of a worldwide failure to provide people with the mental health services they need, at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting a growing need for mental health support."
While our work is a tiny drop in the bucket of need in the United States, I am proud that The Upswing Fund has provided critical resources to organizations providing mental health services to adolescents. Over the last year, $11 million dollars has been awarded to 92 organizations in 34 states and Washington, D.C.
And we are proud to join MTV and other partners in the just-announced Mental Health Youth Action Forum in coordination with the Biden-Harris Administration, that will work to ensure adolescents are taking steps to help themselves and their communities manage their mental health.
As we raise funds for year two, our goal is to fund at least 120 community-based organizations in the U.S. I am honored that the family of my friend who lost his battle with mental illness made a contribution, though there is nothing that can replace the gap his death left in the lives of all who knew him.
My hope is that the open dialogue we are having today about mental health leads to more resources and more treatment so that the next generation doesn't have to experience the hardship and loss that so many face today.