By Denise Hooks-Anderson
Though it seems like members of our collective society can rarely agree upon anything these days, the subject of worsening mental health in our young adult population is not one where there is a lack of consensus. The COVID-19 pandemic did not cause the problem, it simply made it worse. Prolonged isolation, virtual learning, and financial instability were all contributing factors.
A recent youth poll from the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics found that greater than 70% of young adults interviewed believe that there is a mental health crisis in this country. Approximately a quarter of the young adults surveyed reported having attempted suicide. Furthermore, 26% of respondents report that they know someone who has died by suicide.
To some, these numbers may not produce a visceral effect as it does to me. Over the past several months, a couple of our local universities have experienced student deaths because of suicide. The overall number of deaths may seem small, but one is too many.
Our young adults are dealing with the pressures of social media. Portrayed virtual lives appear to be so perfect. Young people witness the happy couples, the latest expensive tennis shoes, the hip, new Tik-Tok dance or challenge, and every other manufactured lie on the web. These virtual traps place an overabundance of stress on these young people whether they can identify it or not. Additionally, young people also share their thoughts about not wanting to live any more on these media platforms which can lead to copycat behavior in their peers.
Recognizing depression and anxiety early could be lifesaving to individuals who believe that all hope is gone, and they have no way out. Speaking up about mental health concerns has been an issue in the black community for years. Our community is notorious for keeping family secrets and for promoting the “keep the family business private” concept. This behavior is extremely dangerous because it impedes individual and family healing.
Hosea, chapter 4:6 states that “my people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.” Our bodies are not compartmentalized, meaning you cannot separate your mental health from your physical and spiritual health. You are one living and breathing vessel that was fearfully and wonderfully made. Therefore, when you are not well mentally, your physical body will also suffer, causing you to experience all types of ailments that may mirror a variety of other diseases.
Often when you are depressed, your appetite changes. Some people may overeat while others may eat at all and begin to lose weight. Sleep is also affected. I have patients who tell me that they just stay in bed all day. They feel tired and sluggish. Some depression sufferers report headaches, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. I have had patients want to pursue an entire GI work-up when the issue was simply their depression or anxiety.
The statistics tell it all. More young people are suffering from depression and anxiety. In addition, suicide rates are also up. Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), from 2007 to 2018 suicides among young people and children aged 10 to 24 rose 57%. These rates are quite alarming and should cause all of us to pause and reflect upon what we will do differently to address these concerns.
Our language around mental health needs to change. Our behavior towards people suffering with mental health conditions needs to change. Our sole reliance on friends and the church and not a mental health professional needs to change. Please hear me clearly. I am not saying you cannot seek counsel with your trusted pastor or priest. However, if that individual is not a licensed mental health professional, your treatment is incomplete. Please go back and refer to Hosea 4:6.
This pandemic has revealed the fragility of our communities. But one thing I am proud of is the fact that we are a resilient people. How else could we have survived slavery and the Jim Crow era? Therefore, let’s buckle up and do what we need to do to help improve the mental health of our communities.
If you feel suicidal or are in a crisis situation, and need immediate assistance, please call 1-800-273-TALK.
Denise Hooks-Anderson, M.D., FAAFP is SLUCare Family Medicine interim assistant dean of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and an associate professor.