This summer, Massachusetts General Hospital reported an impressive 880 people on its waiting list for psychiatric services. And recent headlines like “Why Psychologists say the waiting lists are getting longer” and “Waiting lists for therapy are huge and not going away” remind us that this may not be a short-term problem
Shortages in general, of course, are beginning to become a feature of American life, and not just of toilet paper, baby food, and Adderall. We have seen labor shortages in a range of occupations, including childcare, education, nursing and law enforcement. Even at my local Tractor Supply store, the harassed clerk told me recently that they were five employees short.
But, of course, some shortages are more urgent than others. And when our human services for vital healing begin to be limited, there is an understandable urgency. Over the past year, we have grown accustomed to seeing stories of people struggling to get care due to health facility closures or staff shortages. It seems like every week there’s another story about how the mental health system is failing to meet our collective needs, including an article about New York City’s inadequate efforts to respond to its crisis. mental health issues and a controversy over Yale University’s support for suicidal students, who at times felt pressure to withdraw.
In response, experts often suggest that the solution is to increase the number of professionals or make them more accessible through digital technologies. These two elements are valuable, but there are reasons to believe that they will not be enough.
More than 65 years ago, Congress commissioned a study of America’s mental health system. The resulting report, authored by Dr George Albee, ‘Mental Health Manpower Trends’, warned that the country was unlikely to have enough professionals to deal with the extent of mental health problems it faced. .
That was in 1959. Since that sobering prognosis, mental health and social crises in America have not diminished or improved, to say the least. The various revolutions that have taken place over the decades – especially the closely intertwined sexual and divorce revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s – have been disastrous for families and all of our sanity. And since then, much has been said about the impact of digital revolutions, not to mention the continued encroachment of pornography on homes and hearts.
Despite significant investments in mental health care and interventions over the past two decades, we have witnessed historic levels of depression, anxiety and suicidal behaviors, particularly among young people. It is perhaps understandable that our collective response has most often been a form of “we have to do even more what we have already done.
To be clear, a good and wise counselor can work wonders in someone’s life. But at some point, we need to take a closer look at what’s going on and understand that a deeper pivot may be needed. Albert Einstein and Ben Franklin may never have said this, but there’s still some truth to the idea that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” .
Although medical and mental health interventions have always been effective, it is becoming increasingly clear that we will never have enough to meet all needs. According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, there is a shortage of mental health professionals in Utah’s 29 counties.
My own field of community psychology has been looking for creative solutions to this challenge for several decades now. For example, rather than expecting more and more people to go to professionals, what more could we do to take professional ideas and go at communities — find ways to help them do what they are best placed to do?
Too often, the natural support systems around us – family, friends and neighborhood – end up being viewed as part of the problem, rather than the solution we know they have the potential to be.
With this in mind, a hopeful new possibility emerges. Even if we don’t have enough counsellors, social workers, therapists and health professionals, most of us do have enough neighbours, friends and family members. Everything around us.
But rather than seeing this as an abundant resource, these relationships are too often overlooked. One mother told me, “I’m just a mother,” implying that since she wasn’t a therapist, there was not much she could do for her distressed child. While it’s true that expert insight can be invaluable in many cases, what if you combined the best of professional advice with the wise intuition of a parent?
One of the reasons we may forget our intrinsic ability to support others is that we have assumed for too long that we are no longer needed in this capacity. Northwestern scholar John McKnight tells the parable of a bereavement counselor moving in and installing a shingle in a small town. Before that time, when someone died of illness or accident, the community knew what to do: come together, mourn with each other, and find ways to ease each other’s pain and pain. But with the new office in town, people started saying, “Well, now you better go talk to that grief counselor over there.”
Very quickly, McKnight says, the community began to forget their own ability to care for each other. Whatever good this bereavement counselor had rightfully offered to the community, neighbors, friends and family inadvertently began to lose faith in the role they could play in helping each other and each other. others.
Although allegorical, it is not hard to see evidence of this all around us today. Many veterans returning from war report that when they begin to share their experiences with someone, a common response is “you should go talk to somebody(meaning “to a professional, not to me”). This prompted Paula Caplan to launch a national campaign to “Listen to a Veteran” and simply listen to their stories.
What would similar efforts mean for a host of other challenges? How about “Listen to a Victim of Abuse”, “Listen to a Widow” and “Listen to a Refugee or Immigrant” – not to mention people who are single, lonely, sick or facing bullying or discrimination?
Listening, of course, doesn’t always mean we’re going to be helpful. People dealing with mental illness or past abuse often find people uncomfortable hearing their story – and trying to do something to fix it or make the pain go away.
But the good news is that these are all things we can learn to do better. And what would it mean if we actually stepped into this community support role with more confidence?
I will never forget the day my friend had an emotional breakdown and had to leave his apartment. Her family had many challenges and no doubt contributed to her suffering. But that day, when he needed them, they showed up. They were there. They loved him – yes, even more than the many professionals who assisted him.
What more could families afford if they regained confidence in their ability to help?
Mutual support and peer support efforts can certainly be part of the solution. But TikTok support groups aren’t going to save us from our mental health crisis. Neither the relaxation of education and licensure standards, nor the passage of laws allowing therapists to prescribe drugs, as some have argued.
Without the community stepping up to take their own crucial place in supporting mental health, it’s hard for me to see how we’re going to get through a national crisis that only seems to be getting worse.
I believe in the potential of our communities and our families. Similar to a nuclear energy source just waiting to be accessed, there is enormous untapped power available within our natural support systems. Let’s find it together.
Jacob Hess is editor of Public Square Magazine and served on the board of the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation. He has worked to promote liberal-conservative understanding since publishing “You’re Not As Mad As I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong)” with Phil Neisser. Along with Carrie Skarda, Kyle Anderson, and Ty Mansfield, Hess also wrote “The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints.”