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Opinion | The impact of 2020 on our mental health is often overlooked

With the arrival of 2021 many are celebrating the end of a very difficult year. However, we should all take note of the repercussions of the past 12 months that are likely to linger. In the final months of 2020, Michiganders participated in a conflict-ridden and prolonged election season, the roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines, and the challenges of educating our children during a pandemic. Despite these continued changes there has been an important yet often overlooked constant — the impact of 2020 on our mental health.

Imagine running a marathon with a series of shorthand sprints. Our bodies would ache, our motivation would wane, and over the long term, the approach would not be sustainable. In many ways this state of exhaustion is comparable to our nation’s current mental health. A new year will not cure our fatigue unless we are prepared to address the core issue of providing critical resources where they are needed most. Our state policymakers and lawmakers must focus attention and resources on strengthening an overstretched public mental health system. Otherwise, we face social, economic and community impact that will linger far after the last vaccination is given.

The mental health of Michiganders — our fundamental sense of well-being and ability to love, work, play, learn, worship, and thrive — is unavoidably at risk when we are confronted by a host of pressures, losses, and threats. These pressures include job losses and economic distress, health fears, isolation brought on by the pandemic, political discord, and concerns around how these factors will impact our children and our communities for years to come. These issues can be compounded when our nation looks for short-term, crisis-oriented responses to the mental health needs that these factors cause when their impact will last for years.

Sheehan

Adjusting our lives to a global pandemic — and all of the burdens that come with it — for most of the year has left many vulnerable populations, especially those struggling with mental health needs, feeling at loose ends or worse. Yet, these needs are often ignored in a news cycle dominated by vaccine shipments and post-election drama. 

Our routines have been interrupted. For many, there is no longer a regular cadence of work, school, social connection, exercise, worship, eating or sleeping. These disruptions are further magnified for those facing job loss, pay cuts and layoffs, lack of transportation, putting food on the table, and educating children at home.

The coronavirus has taken the lives of many Americans. We must acknowledge that mental health challenges will claim a similar toll if left unaddressed. We need to ensure our families have the resources they need to begin to heal, in every sense of the word, as we move forward. 

Financial reporters are saying the COVID-19 vaccines could spur job growth in 2021, but that optimism regarding a similar rebound in our mental health status must be tempered. Mental health professionals warn of the continuing under-reported damage happening each day. Let me be clear—everything happening in this world impacts everyone’s mental health and we, as a state, as a society, as individuals, must respond. There is no “operation warp speed” for mental health. 

There are those who argue that additional funding, while essential for ensuring access to sound mental health care, is not possible in the face of stressed state budgets. However adequately funding mental health services costs – closing a funding and resource gap that has long existed and made even clearer as a result of the pandemic – is as essential as a strong health care, educational, and other components of a sound societal infrastructure. Michiganders expect such a mental health system available to all of them.

The mental health impact on families and community members as a result of the coronavirus will continue for years to come. It is absolutely essential that Michigan policymakers, lawmakers, and community leaders treat mental health services, the necessary funding and policies with the energy and urgency they require. It is the only path to true healing in 2021.

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