The Numbers Show Covid Is a Mental Health Crisis

The U.S. mental health system was already in tatters. Then came the pandemic.

Hannah Faris

A patient sits on a chair in her room at The Ville-Evrard Psychiatric Hospital in Saint-Denis, north of Paris on November 3, 2020. Christophe ARCHAMBAULT / AFP) (Photo by CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP via Getty Images

Funding for public health has been on the decline for over a decade, eroding prevention and weakening responses to health threats. This is particularly true in state mental healthcare systems, and the harm of this disinvestment is widespread. 

In Chicago, over half of city-run mental health clinics closed in 2012 alone—leaving hundreds of patients without care. This penny-pinching budget cut, which made little difference in the city’s then-$8.2 billion budget, shifted patients en masse from community mental health centers to emergency rooms and correctional facilities.

Prior to 2020, one in six U.S. adults could not afford professional help when experiencing emotional distress, and over half of U.S. counties lacked access to a single psychiatrist.

This mental health crisis has been exacerbated by the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic. Fears of contracting the virus, isolation, and the ever-increasing death toll (over 302,000 dead in the U.S.) have been compounded by the stressors of job loss, financial strain and uncertain futures. This has led over one in three Americans to show clinical signs of anxiety or depression, disproportionally appearing in women, Black and Latinx Americans.

Without intervention, the long-term consequences of this untreated crisis will be devastating. Experts warn that suicides, substance abuse and overdose deaths will continue to rise. 

While the CARES Act has allocated $425 million for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, many say it’s not nearly enough. According to Paul Gionfriddo, CEO of Mental Health America, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting mental health, even a 10% increase in demand for behavioral health services in 2020 and 2021 could cost the healthcare delivery system upwards of $25 billion. 

Some say only a universal, single-payer program like Medicare for All can address the ballooning physical and mental health needs during this crisis. As Colette Shade writes in Jacobin, Simply implementing Medicare for All would drastically improve mental health outcomes in the United States.” However, Shade argues that more must also be done to address social determinants of health. Access to health care does not fully address the root causes of this country’s mental health epidemics. Mental health outcomes are deeply influenced by economic and political policy choices.”

The following numbers offer a glimpse into the dire state of the U.S. mental health system, evidence of the radical intervention needed on behalf of our lawmakers.

891% more calls were received by the U.S. suicide hotline this March than last March.

40% of Americans have reported a pandemic-related mental health condition, according to a June CDC survey

49% of survey takers aged 18 – 24 reported anxiety symptoms and 26% had seriously considered suicide

22% of survey takers who are essential workers had considered suicide, compared with 7.8% of nonessential workers

4 times as many people reported possible depression this June compared with last June

22.3% of all adults with a mental illness this year were not able to receive treatment because they lacked insurance or resources

89% of adults struggling with substance use did not receive professional help in 2019

41% of Black Americans were experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression one week after the murder of George Floyd, up from 36% prior to his murder, according to the Census Bureau

$87.1 Billion was requested to fund the Department of Health and Human Services for 2020, a 4% decrease from 2019 (excluding Covid-19 emergency relief)

0.01% of the federal money approved for Covid-19 emergency relief was designated to address mental health concerns

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Hannah Faris is associate editor at The Wisconsin Idea, an independent reporting project of People’s Action Institute, Citizen Action of Wisconsin Education Fund and In These Times.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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