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COMMENTARY: Concurrent crises -- COVID-19, mental health and substance abuse

COMMENTARY: Concurrent crises -- COVID-19, mental health and substance abuse

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As vaccinations ramp up around the United States and people begin to see a glimmer of “normal” in their future, it’s important that we take a step back to recognize the individual and uniquely intertwined issues that have upended lives in every community across the country. May is Mental Health Awareness Month and, unfortunately, we’re currently seeing a greater need than ever for mental health support across Iowa.

Iowans have been struggling with mental health and substance use disorders since before the COVID-19 pandemic, but this unprecedented public health crisis has exacerbated the issues many individuals and families were already facing. Increased stress and anxiety, social isolation, and loss of employment and income have all contributed to spikes in people seeking mental health support.

Peggy Huppert

Peggy Huppert

Now, instead of one in five Iowans reporting mental health challenges, it’s more like one in three. In fact, in September 42% of Iowans reported suffering from anxiety or depression. In 2020 alone, National Alliance on Mental Illness -- Iowa employees made 599 referrals just on our personal Iowa Office of Consumer Affairs helpline. Here at NAMI Iowa, we were able to move our programming virtual relatively quickly, allowing programs like Ending the Silence to reach over 4,700 virtual viewers since March.

In addition to mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, many Iowans are also living with substance use disorders. NAMI Iowa provides support for those in recovery through our Peer to Peer program, facilitating safe environments for anyone with mental illness to find ongoing support from others in recovery with shared experiences. We also rely on partners like the Rx Abuse Leadership Initiative of Iowa, or RALI, to help share information with our local communities. RALI is a coalition of partner organizations across the state who are committed to sharing resources and supporting solutions to the opioid crisis. For instance, RALI provides tips on how to prevent substance misuse through proper storage and disposal of prescription medications. They also educate parents, caregivers, and others how to spot the hidden warning signs of substance misuse using an interactive virtual tour on their website. The exhibit, designed to look like a teenager’s bedroom, is filled with hidden red flags of addiction, and an expert tour guide explains the commonly overlooked signs.

It’s great to see our local leaders taking part in the conversation, too. Rep. Timi Brown-Powers, D-Waterloo, said, “It’s critical that we look at all angles of this problem. Of course, COVID-19 has presented challenges for everyone, but the impacts on those with mental health disorders or those navigating their recovery journey cannot be ignored. Working together is the only way we can share the necessary supports.”

This May, as we recognize Mental Health Awareness Month, take a moment to check in on yourself and your loved ones. Everyone’s experiences are unique, but we’re all facing challenges and there is support available to help. Whether you’re reaching out for the first time or working to stay on track despite the disruptions from COVID, organizations like NAMI, RALI, and our partners are continuing our work to support local communities.

Peggy Huppert is executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Iowa.

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