‘Everyone’s life touches someone with a mental health condition’

World Health Organization releases its largest review of mental health

The COVID pandemic has exhausted health care systems worldwide, but there is a quieter health issue we might want to pay attention to: the rising mental health crisis.

The World Health Organization recently released a report on the largest problems facing mental health care. Isolation, stress and socioeconomic factors caused by the pandemic increased anxiety and depression by 25% worldwide in the first year alone.

“Everyone’s life touches someone with a mental health condition. Good mental health translates to good physical health and this new report makes a compelling case for change,” WHO director-general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a press release. “Investment into mental health is an investment into a better life and future for all.”

The report focuses on three paths to change: deepen the value given to mental health care, reshape environments that influence mental health and strengthen mental health care.

Georgia ranked No. 48 in the country for access to mental health care in 2022, according to Mental Health America. The lack of parity in insurance coverage, along with a nursing shortage, contributed to Georgia’s low ranking. However, legislation taking effect July 1 will address this issue and would require all insurance companies who offer mental health coverage to cover it the same way physical health is covered.

“Making sure that we ensure parity was our first way to fix the workforce problem. Now, it’s not going to fix it overnight. But we really need to address the workforce issue before we can address any gaps in the mental health service coverage,” said Kim H. Jones, executive director of Georgia’s chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Georgia still has a long road ahead to improve mental health care access in the state. Following the paths set by the WHO, here are ways the state can improve mental health care.

Deepening the value given to mental health care

Awareness normalizes mental health and should be a priority in all sectors of society. Increasing awareness and making it a priority in all sectors promotes inclusion and breaks down the stigma around mental health.

In Georgia, 1 in 3 workers said they would quit their jobs for mental health or burnout reasons, according to Business Wire. Mental health was the second most popular answer for why workers would leave their jobs.

“What I say to leaders is to be intentional. If you think about physical health, for example, and think about how many times in conversations, at your office or just in life in general, we talk about how much we need to exercise or how we exercise and we track it and we monitor it and we’re proud of it. We want to see that same process happen for people’s mental health.” Jones said.

“Creating open dialogues and promoting conversations around mental health on a daily basis will help to tackle the stigma (of mental health),” CEO of the Center for Global Health Innovation, Maria Thacker Goethe told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “For example, schools can incorporate daily opportunities for students to reflect on their mental health and feelings. It is important to recognize that each individual has ‘good’ mental health days and ‘bad’ mental health days.”

Reshaping environments

The community around us affects and influences mental health. Whether that is our workplaces, schools or our own neighborhood.

Schools in Georgia face a shortage of mental health resources. The recommended ratio of students to school psychologists is 500:1. However, that ratio is 6,390:1 in Georgia, according to a June investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Increasing access to resources and professionals in school improves physical and psychological safety of students and their academic performances, according to the National Association of School Psychologists. Georgia social workers receive some of the lowest starting salaries compared to the rest of the nation, according to Social Work License Map. Salaries for health care social workers rank ninth lowest, mental health social workers rank 16th lowest, and child, family and school social workers rank the 17th lowest in the nation.

“I went to the University of Georgia to get my degree in social work,” Jones said. “Then I realized how much I was gonna get paid and was like, I need to do something else because I can’t pay my bills on what a social worker makes.”

Nearly 2 million people with serious mental health issues are placed in jail every year for nonviolent crimes such as loitering or vagrancy. Currently, 368 Georgians deemed incompetent are in jail, awaiting treatment to stand trial, according to Kaiser Health News. Jail can worsen mental health conditions and those awaiting transfers to inpatient facilities face longer delays due to the pandemic.

Strengthening mental health care

The WHO suggests strengthening mental health care by “changing where, how, and by whom mental health care is delivered and received.” While HB 1013 addresses some of the large issues facing mental health care in Georgia, the workforce shortage limits access to mental health services.

“We have beds that are currently available that are not being used because there aren’t (enough) mental health nurses and mental health providers to meet the minimum ratios to keep those beds open,” Jones said.

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