Your favorite Instagram influencer can post about self-care all day, showing glamorous pictures of bubble baths and retreats. Leaders across the country can offer lip service on the need to address mental health. A company can send an email to its employees honoring Mental Health Awareness Month.
But true mental health changes look much different from that.
An estimated 1 in 4 American adults lives with a mental health condition. The COVID-19 crisis has likely added to this figure, leading to what mental health experts colloquially call a second pandemic. Burnout, issues with alcohol, depression, anxiety, grief and more have touched millions of Americans over the past two years. On top of that, children’s mental health concerns have been spiking, exacerbating an already bleak situation. It prompted the American Academy of Pediatrics and other medical groups to declare a national emergency in youth mental health.
Top mental health experts know ways to address it. But making it happen ― in a sea of dissenting political opinions, lack of funding, health care employee shortages and other obstacles ― is much harder.
Here are just a few of the actual changes mental health professionals say we need from inside ourselves, in our homes and across the country right now:
Coping strategies from a younger age
When did you first learn to deep-breathe your way through a stressful situation? Potentially not early enough, according to Reena B. Patel, a licensed educational psychologist, board-certified behavior analyst and author of “Winnie & Her Worries.”
She is teaching children as young as 3 how to compartmentalize problems and reduce anxiety through her own programs ― and she said many more educational systems like this need to exist.
“We need to be addressing ways to cope with everyday stressors at a young age. I get them as teenagers and it is so difficult because they have established poor coping mechanisms,” she said. “Those teenagers become adults and then we’ve got this huge problem.”
She wants parents to stop trying to “save the day” for their toddlers, instead of helping them handle situations on their own with parental guidance. Another important change includes parents evaluating how they handle stress themselves, as kids are watching and learning from them.
Mandated social-emotional learning
The current school structure doesn’t align with how we live now, according to Bethany Cook, a licensed clinical psychologist in Chicago. Cook explained that the system was established for a farming society, not a wide mix of neurodivergent individuals, including those with mental health conditions such as ADHD.
Implementing social-emotional learning (SEL) for all schools, which would address kids’ social, emotional, behavioral and mental health needs, would allow young people to better thrive in a learning environment. According to Cook, SEL would include increased access to and education on mental health resources and strategies, from coping mechanisms like deep breathing to increased school staff training to handle social and emotional concerns. Currently, about 3 in 4 schools teach SEL nationwide, according to an Education Week survey.
Paid mental wellness days and better work flexibility
Patel said both students and adults need mental health days that aren’t tied to sick days in any way as well.
“[Companies should] really separate that in HR policies, and almost praise individuals and reinforce them for taking time to reset,” she said, emphasizing that employees shouldn’t have to mask it under the pretense of illness or another excuse.
“It’s not a day you’re taking because you have a cold or a personal day because you are feeling extra tired. It’s a day that you actually need to help individuals,” she explained, noting that it would also be ideal to provide resources or advice that may help a person’s mental well-being.
Other mental-health-based recommendations include moving to a four-day workweek, which Cook said is essential, along with job flexibility: “Let people work when they want to work.”
A media makeover
Patel is encouraged to see celebrities, such as Selena Gomez and Ashley Judd, talking about mental health struggles publicly. She hopes that other representations — like realistic commercials that depict what it’s actually like to live with a mental health condition — will become more common, too. People should see themselves in all types of media, Patel said, noting that some mental health commercials, for example, should have a picture of a mom running around with her kids rather than staring sadly out a window.
Unrealistic beauty standards also come into play here. Cook added that additional media-related issues revolve around unrealistic images: “Can we just stop airbrushing models? They’re not going to stop, I get it, but all of that impacts mental health.”
Consumers can support companies that have pledged to stop airbrushing models and can also evaluate their own social media feeds to promote increased exposure to real bodies. Following influencers who look like you can help rewire your brain to see your body for what it is — normal — and decrease the pressure to conform to something unhealthy.
Paid maternity leave and better day care options
The pandemic has revealed the plight of the lose-lose situation that parents, especially mothers, face on a daily basis. Part of the solution to relieving parents’ mental health struggles, Cook said, is a minimum of one year of maternity leave, along with increased day care options. She proposes placing them in or close to businesses where parents work.
“Parents need the bond and it’s important for children to feel connected. And when the day care is close to where an individual works, they can on a break go and say hi, have access to their child, [check on] a runny nose … have lunch together,” she said. This would eliminate the issue of parents being “forced to go back to work before they’re ready” or thrusting a child into a day care environment too early.
Additional day care reform ideas have included placing them in senior citizen centers for the emotional benefits to both the youngest and oldest Americans and federally funded health care to relieve financial burdens.
Tackling systemic inequalities in housing, health care, food access and more
Though people with mental health challenges might work hard to prevent and improve their conditions to the best of their abilities, systemic inequalities can make that difficult and even impossible. Decreased access to housing, health care, food access, and more greatly inhibits people’s ability to address or improve their mental health.
This certainly includes access to treatment, like therapy. Cook said there’s a need for government-funded mental health facilities run by universities and research centers. Providing an accessible and reputable source for help can assist people in getting the care they really need.
Additionally, Cook said, there needs to be reform when it comes to insurance. She has witnessed firsthand how insurance can cause major barriers for patients and providers, and hopes for change in oversight so fewer patients’ claims are denied. “I’d also like insurance to pay for innovative care,” as well as removing any restrictions on mental health care that would, for example, limit the number of therapy visits a patient has covered, Cook said.
Platitudes about taking care of yourself and prioritizing your mind only go so far. We need real change — and access — to make a shift in people’s mental health right now.