BY MARK PRITCHETT SRQ DAILY SATURDAY PERSPECTIVES EDITION
SATURDAY MAY 15, 2021
Great news arrived in my email on Thursday. The CDC formally declared that if you have been vaccinated, you may resume activities that you did prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a pivotal turning point to return to a normal life for our community, workplaces, and schools.
However, for many in Sarasota and across the country, the emotional and mental health effects of the pandemic will linger until they seek help. The impact of COVID-19 has fueled a distressing rise in anxiety and depression among teenagers. A recent two-part story from Health News Florida and a May/June feature in SRQ Magazine detail this toll while shining a spotlight on resources and programs that are trying to help.
And it’s not only our youth who are struggling. Nor is it just the incidence of mental-health conditions that is on the rise. Multiple experts on a Sarasota Tiger Bay Club webinar last week reported an even more alarming increase in the acuity of mental-health cases in our region. That’s across all demographics—age, ethnicity, financial standing. Amid the dual health and economic crises in which we’ve been mired, what was a mild case is now a severe one. What was a severe case is now a crisis.
May is recognized as Mental Health Awareness month. The purpose is to raise awareness about a variety of mental illnesses and to remove the stigma associated with getting the proper treatment. Research conducted by USF through the Here4YOUth mental-health initiative noted a range of reasons why community members might not seek the help they need—from fear of bullying or being shunned by the community to parents who don’t want to admit a “problem” with their child or be “found out” for their own potential issues. As one stakeholder says in the report: “I think that stigma, coupled with a lack of knowledge of the resources out there, creates the barriers to helping more children and families in need earlier on.” And earlier on is key.
As a region, we are working to eliminate the stigma around mental health. It should be seen no differently than our physical health. Mental illnesses are treatable. Early detection can make treatment much easier and survival rates exponentially higher. The brain is an organ just like the heart, liver, kidneys or lungs. Yet we don’t screen for mental health like we do for physical health. And when someone is a “problem”—think a child in a classroom, an adult on the job—how often is the response to just cut them off, so to speak?
It doesn’t have to be this way. The Sarasota region has started coming together to provide prevention programs and treatments that address the mental-health crisis head-on. Several organizations spotlighted in the stories mentioned above are working together through Here4YOUth to transform our system of mental-health care for children through young adults. Our county commission this month took an important step toward ensuring a dedicated source of public funding for desperately needed, fiscally sound mental-health services. This progress is promising.
On that Tiger Bay videoconference last week, advocate Collen Thayer shared a wonderful origin story of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the country’s largest grassroots mental-health organization “It was a couple of moms sitting around a kitchen table, literally, who had adult children that lived with severe mental illness,” she said, “and they wanted to figure out a way to get them through that system of care and support them the best they can.” Today, NAMI has more than 600 affiliates across the country, including Thayer’s Sarasota-Manatee chapter, which does heroic and innovative work to support families struggling with mental-health challenges.
Across our community, there are thousands of moms and dads and other loved ones sitting around their kitchen tables who deserve better than they have now. They deserve to speak shame-free and be embraced freely. They deserve their own hope, and they deserve our community’s help. Please learn more at Here4YOUth.org.
Mark Pritchett is president and CEO of Gulf Coast Community Foundation.