The need for conversations about mental health
Mental health screening is an increasingly common practice in doctor’s offices across the country, but how are mental health issues uncovered when we are not seeking medical care?
COVID-19 has created a monumental increase in mental health issues following months of social isolation, collective community fear, and financial strain. It is also creating an opportunity for a community-led approach to uncovering mental health issues; that is, if we can put aside our fears and stigmas of asking about mental health.
As a clinical mental health counselor, my training prepared me to meet the needs of individuals experiencing a range of mental health issues. Most non-clinical practitioners in our communities – schools, CBOs, faith-based organizations – have not received that type of specialized training.
A lack in advanced training in mental health does not mean practitioners aren’t constantly exposed to individuals with mental health issues. It simply means we are choosing to look the other direction. Right now, we need all hands on deck for a community-wide, no wrong door approach supported by coordinated referral networks.
Here are some proposed actions to get your community started:
- Apply a trauma aware perspective to challenge your assumptions. We are living in a moment of collective trauma which compounds levels of toxic stress, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Through that lens it is important to remember each of us is complex and bring our past experience into each interaction. How might mental health issues be impacting:
- A contract tracer’s ability to reach an individual with anxiety or depression?
- An individual’s ability to complete a job benefits claim
- A distressed parent from enrolling in school programming
When we are not aware that an individual is facing mental health issues, we don’t have the full picture.
- Know and respect ethical and legal boundaries but don’t be afraid to ask if individuals are in distress. We’ve spent a long time treating individuals who have mental illness as the third rail of health conditions. The truth is that the vast majority of individuals with a mental health diagnosis pose no serious harm to themselves or others. So why should non-clinical partners be afraid of compassionate inquiry? Untrained individuals should never attempt to treat individuals experiencing a mental health issue. But when you are in front of an individual experiencing mental health issues, that individual is still experiencing that issue whether you ask or not. So, why not ask?
- Be prepared to pass to a qualified mental health professional. This is where a newly formed coordinated care and referral networks in communities can come in handy. If you uncover someone that needs more support, you need to have a qualified professional to pass that individual along to immediately. Find your top referring buddies before you start asking those challenging questions.
- Mental Health Providers: be good community educators. Be proactive and help your communities understand how to invite conversations with individuals about their mental health. What words of support do you offer? How do you recognize signs of mental illness? What screening tools can folks use? And most importantly, how can helpers get an individual to a qualified professional to evaluate when needed. Help reduce the fear and stigma associated with asking about mental health.
As communities, we can do better to increase the conversation about our own collective mental health. Let’s embrace a shared responsibility of meeting the mental health needs of our communities.