As we near the end of Mental Health Awareness Month, Kiara Kuenzler, PhD., president and CEO of the Jefferson Center for Mental Health (JCMH) wants people to know that although mental health needs have been on the rise since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, help is available.
One-in-five people experienced some sort of mental health challenge at any given time prior to the onset of COVID-19, according to Kuenzler. But recently the Colorado Health Institute has revised that number. It’s now closer to one-in-three.
“Some studies are showing 50% of people in the U.S. are struggling with symptoms of depression or anxiety,” she said. “So, the number of people struggling with mental health issues and addictions or increased substance use has just dramatically increased over the past couple of years.”
On the up-side, people have become more aware of the importance of mental health. But may not always be aware of some contributing factors that relate to the rise in mental health and addiction issues.
One of the contributing factors Kuenzler’s been focusing on lately, is the impact of loneliness and social isolation. She said during the pandemic, people saw a natural "closing in" of their world, and that lack of engagement in the workplace, with church, friends, extended family, neighborhood groups, etc., caused the trend in loneliness to increase. But the problem isn’t new. According to Kuenzler, loneliness has been on the rise for the past two decades.
“There was a study that came out in 2021 — the Harvard study on loneliness — and it showed that 36% of adults in the U.S. experience frequent loneliness or feel lonely all of the time,” she said. “And for young adults, aged 18 to 25, that number was 61%.”
Kuenzler said those numbers mimicked other research that came out during the pandemic that showed young adults with depression and anxiety rates of up to 63%.
Questioned about the possible correlation of increased loneliness, to the increased amount of time people spend online, instead of in personal interactions, Kuenzler said there is data showing the impact of social media on depression and suicidal ideation and suicide attempts.
“Some of that has to do with the impact of cyber bullying and the impact on self-esteem that comes through some of the social media outlets,” she said. “Part of it also has to do with sleep. There’s some research that talks about the how kids are staying on social media platforms later and later in the evening — and that addictive quality of engaging through social media can mean kids are not sleeping enough. And lack of sleep is also related to feelings of depression and suicidal thoughts.”
She said the research isn’t definitive — it’s a lot more correlation — but it’s something to consider.
With loneliness, Kuenzler was emphatic that it has dramatic impacts on mental health. She said people who experience chronic loneliness have shorter life-expectancies, lower-functioning immune systems and more chronic physical health diseases. And along with increased depression and anxiety, loneliness also contributes to aggression, violent behavior and suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
What can you do?
Kuenzler said one of the most important things people can do is to simply be aware of times when they or someone they know, is struggling. She said changes in behavior can often be red flags that signal a mental health issue is present, with someone becoming more withdrawn, irritable or even forgetful.
“I don’t think we should be afraid to ask someone how they’re doing — to say, 'How are you doing? You seem like you’ve been acting a little bit different. Are you struggling with anything difficult that you’d like to talk about?'” Kuenzler said. “Just be open to having those real conversations with people about their mental well-being.”
When you do start that conversation, Kuenzler said it’s important to know what resources are available to help. She said in her opinion, mental health resources are more widely available than they’ve ever been — even with the dramatic workforce shortage the behavioral health field is currently experiencing.
Kuenzler wanted to remind folks that most employer-provided healthcare insurance plans include mental health benefits including free apps and / or resources to connect with healthcare providers in real-time. Other companies might provide Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) that can help with mental health assistance. Community resources like JCMH can play a substantial role as well. Jefferson Center for Mental Health can be reached by calling 303-425-0300.
If you need, or think you might need mental health services, you can also call the Colorado Crisis Services Statewide Hotline (it’s not only for when you’re in crisis — it can also provide information for related services) at 1-844-493-8255. Or you can text TALK to 38255. Kuenzler said the text option is a really great resource, especially for teens or young adults.
Finally, Kuenzler said not to underestimate the importance of taking care of your physical health and making time in your day to do things you enjoy. She said some good old-fashioned exercise like cardiovascular activity can be tremendously helpful in creating positive impacts on mental health.