Promoting Mental Well-Being in a Post-Pandemic World

May 26, 2021 | Colleen Carr

rock-carins-on-log-by-water_1200x740.jpgAlthough suicide was a critical public health issue in the U.S. long before the COVID-19 pandemic began, Americans are now reporting increased mental health challenges like depression, anxiety, and suicidal behaviors. In addition, millions have experienced financial hardships, social isolation and loneliness, and increased stress—all of which are shared risk factors for mental health conditions, suicidal behaviors, and substance misuse.

However, the pandemic has also created some opportunities for us to improve mental health and suicide prevention efforts across the country. A recent survey found over 80% of Americans say that it is more important than ever to make suicide prevention a national priority because of COVID-19. Notably, Congress approved America’s first three-digit crisis number dedicated to mental health emergencies—988. Once effectively deployed (by July 2022), 988 has the potential to connect those who need help with trained mental health professionals specifically equipped to respond to such crises.

State public health officials have taken bold action over the past 12 months to mitigate the physical impacts of COVID-19, and the same swift action should be applied to mitigate the acute and potential long-term mental health, suicide, and substance use impacts. As the nation’s public-private partnership for suicide prevention, the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention (Action Alliance) at the Education Development Center promotes an urgent, coordinated response for addressing mental health and suicide in the wake of COVID-19. In April 2020, the Action Alliance launched the Mental Health & Suicide Prevention National Response to COVID-19 to bring together diverse sectors, including business, government, nonprofit, health care, public safety, education, and media and entertainment, to galvanize action and accelerate cultural, system, and policy changes.

The National Response’s An Action Plan for Strengthening Mental Health and Prevention of Suicide in the Aftermath of COVID-19 (Action Plan) provides a roadmap for addressing the mental health, suicide prevention, and substance misuse prevention needs spurred by COVID-19. The six priorities of the Action Plan focus on strengthening systems and championing policies to support all individuals today and in the years to come. These include:

  1. Changing the national conversation about mental health and suicide.
  2. Increasing access to evidence-based treatments for substance use and mental health disorders in specialty and primary care.
  3. Increasing the use of non-punitive and supportive crisis intervention services.
  4. Establishing near real-time data collection systems to promptly identify changes in rates of suicide, overdose, and other key events, and of clusters or spikes in these outcomes.
  5. Ensuring the equitable delivery of comprehensive and effective suicide prevention and mental health services for Black Americans and others disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.
  6. Investing in prevention and early intervention approaches that treat the root causes of suicide and mental health problems.

State and territorial health officials can bolster behavioral health infrastructure by implementing the following comprehensive strategies to address mental health and substance misuse through a shared lens when making key policy recommendations in the months ahead.

Establish Near Real-Time Data Systems for Mental Health, Suicide, and Overdose Events.

Just as near real-time data is available on a variety of indicators related to COVID-19, a similar investment in data infrastructure is required to better understand the mental health needs and help guide policy and prevention decisions in the wake of the pandemic.

  • Collecting more comprehensive demographic data on sexual orientation, gender identity, military/veteran status, race, and occupation/industry.
  • Researching how to produce more timely assessments of non-fatal and fatal suicide- and overdose-related events.
  • Training medical examiner and coroner offices to collect more comprehensive suicide and overdose death data.
  • Improving quality and interoperability of data and information systems, such as, hospitalization, emergency department, and vital statistics data.
  • Expanding access to data for public health monitoring and clinical quality improvement.

Ensure the Equitable Delivery of Mental Health Promotion and Suicide Prevention Services for Populations Disproportionately Impacted by the Pandemic.

The physical, mental, and behavioral health impacts of COVID-19 have disproportionately impacted certain communities. For example, recently released state-level data from Maryland and Connecticut show that suicide rates increased among communities of color and decreased among white residents during or in the wake of COVID-19. The Action Plan calls on state and local policymakers to increase culturally appropriate and effective services, education, research, and treatment access for Black, Latinx, American Indian/Alaskan Native, LGBTQ+, and other populations disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

Invest in Prevention and Early Intervention Approaches that Treat the Root Causes of Mental Health Conditions, Suicidal Behaviors, and Substance Misuse.

Non-clinical settings—such as schools, places of employment, and community spaces—are equally important as clinical settings for promoting mental health and well-being, as well as suicide and substance misuse prevention. The Action Plan calls for federal, state, and local officials to provide greater training opportunities for professionals in non-clinical settings, especially professionals who work with children and adolescents. It is also imperative that we look upstream and address the systemic causes of suicidal behaviors and substance misuse, like poverty, racism, and adverse childhood experiences. By building greater capacity and supports for mental health services in places like school settings and focusing on action steps toward eliminating systemic oppression we can more effectively reach communities who are disproportionately impacted by trauma and behavioral health conditions.

Change the Narrative Around Mental Well-Being.

The overwhelming majority of people who struggle with thoughts of suicide do not die by suicide. Rather, they instead access appropriate resources and develop skills needed to live full lives. Consider highlighting how important this messaging is, and encouraging people in your jurisdiction to use the National Response’s messaging guidance about mental health and suicide prevention in the context of COVID-19. Also, recommend members of the media to follow best practices when reporting on suicide and suicide prevention. Remember, sharing these untold stories helps reinforce that help and hope are possible.

Adopting these strategies can provide a strong foundation for a more comprehensive, cohesive, and equitable response to promote mental well-being now and in the future. Although not alone in advancing solutions, public health professionals and leaders play a key and timely role in helping to ensure our nation emerges stronger from this pandemic. The Action Alliance is proud to be working with state and territorial health officials to make these changes happen.