Mental health

Conversations about mental health should continue beyond awareness month: Katie Jenkins

CLEVELAND, Ohio — May was National Mental Health Awareness Month, but the conversation can’t end just because we’ve turned a page on our calendars.

As the executive director of NAMI Greater Cleveland, a local non-profit affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, I have long believed mental health should be a frequent topic of discussion. Now that we have all been through the pandemic, more people than ever seem to agree with me.

The stress, anxiety, and isolation we faced forced us to acknowledge the importance of caring for our mental health.

Awareness of mental health can only go so far if we are suffering in isolation. U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy recently called loneliness a public health epidemic. He noted that in-person social networks are shrinking, people report having fewer friendships, and the average time Americans spend alone increased by 24 hours a month between 2003 and 2020.

Young people, between 15 and 24, spent an average of 70% less time with friends in 2020 compared to their peers in 2003. A lack of social connection shortens lifespans by about the same amount as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, according to Murthy’s advisory.

For many, social media provides short-term connections, but ultimately makes us feel more alone.

With salaries not keeping pace with the cost of living, people are worried about making ends meet. People experiencing violence in their homes or communities are being traumatized by what they’ve been through while living in fear it will happen again.

Black and brown people face all these issues, and endure toxic stress caused by systemic racism.

Our society isn’t set up for good mental health, and it shows in the data.

Between 2011 and 2020, the number of Ohio adults who said they experienced “frequent poor mental health days’’ increased by 20%. One in four said they needed treatment but did not receive it, according to the Health Policy Institute of Ohio.

Data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows that growing numbers of Ohio children and teens report experiencing anxiety and depression.

A recent report by the Mental Health and Addiction Advocacy Coalition found that Black and brown Ohioans have increasing suicide and overdose rates and are struggling to receive culturally competent care.

NAMI GC is uniquely positioned to meet this moment. We offer something few other mental health organizations offer: entirely free services, support, and education provided by people who have direct, lived experience.

Dr. Murthy said connection is the cure for the loneliness epidemic. At NAMI GC, connection is our core competency.

Members of our helpline staff are available Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at (216) 875-7776. They stay on the line with callers until we can connect them with the mental health services they need.

We offer free support groups and education programs for people throughout Cuyahoga County, including programs for young adults, the BIPOC community, and the LGBTQ+ community.

We host programs that provide people with a creative outlet to share their stories with others. We are building bridges and breaking stigma, one person at a time.

This year, NAMI GC is embarking on our strategic plan, and we need to hear from people who live, work, or receive services in Cuyahoga County. Our brief online survey asks about the county’s biggest mental health challenges and how to best address them. Find it here: The data we obtain will help us provide better programming and inform policymakers and mental health providers.

It will take all of us to solve the mental health crisis. Let us keep the conversation going.

Katie Jenkins is a passionate mental health advocate who identifies as a family member of someone with a mental health condition and an individual diagnosed with depression and anxiety.

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