May 15, 2020

Fostering a commitment to our mental health in the era of COVID-19

The long-term impact that the coronavirus will have on our mental health is hard to predict. A D.C. nonprofit is working to help people through teletherapy.

One Common Unity is a nonprofit organization that breaks cycles of violence and builds compassionate, healthy communities through the transformative power of music, arts, and peace education. Photos courtesy of One Common Unity.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. With so many sheltered in place and quarantined the social isolation is real and some of the results include depression, confusion, sadness, anxiety, stress, boredom, irritability, and substance abuse. For some people, social connection can sometimes feel as important as eating a meal. It fills a deep yearning and need in our lives to not feel alone out here in the world. When we feel alone, we feel scared.

The long-term impact that the coronavirus will have on our mental health is hard to predict but the current trends and numbers point toward widespread fallout and need for increased access to therapists. Unfortunately, for decades, mental health has been an afterthought in our priorities. The lack of access to mental health care is staggering and apparent.

Statistics gathered from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tell us that, in the United States, 1 in 5 adults endure the consequences of mental illness each year. Additionally, according to a 2018 survey conducted by the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) only 43.3 percent of U.S. adults with mental illness received treatment in 2018.

With the number of deaths in the U.S. surpassing the number of U.S. armed forces killed in the Vietnam War, the ripple effects of grief and loss will leave deep scars on individuals and families. A few years from now, many people will be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or, maybe at that point, we may have to call it post-COVID-19 trauma.

After the foundational needs of food, shelter, and security are met, mental health is the next cornerstone. In fact, stable and balanced mental health enables humans to fulfill our basic human needs. To feel useful in life and to feel we are contributing (not just to society but also to your own success) is fundamental to our joy. With unemployment rates rising and so many people turning to substances to dull the feelings of failure and lack of worth, if we don’t have essential mental health supports readily accessible for these individuals then the ripple effects could be incalculable.

But at a time when we should be expanding care, it may be even harder to come by. To help make mental health services more readily accessible to people in need, leadership should consider opening licensing restrictions that prevent therapists from seeing patients across state borders (embracing the new reality and need for teletherapy). This would allow us to provide more general access to people, especially to those who have travel restrictions. Also, to help expand mental health care, insurance companies need to prioritize mental health therapy and treatment and remove obstacles for those in need of treatment, such as pre-authorizations for care.

There are glimmers of hope. At One Common Unity (OCU) we have been responding to the increasing mental health burdens caused by the COVID-19 pandemic by expanding our clinical services to provide telehealth therapy and counseling to individuals and families throughout Washington, D.C. This new community-based service builds upon One Common Unity’s partnerships with the Department of Behavioral Health, DC Charter Schools and DC Public Schools as a founding school-based mental health services provider under the city’s Comprehensive School-Based Mental Health Expansion program. The OCU Mental Health program connects with clients where they are and aims to erase the stigma of mental health through education, compassionate therapeutic services, and advocacy. Our clinicians utilize evidence-based practices alongside art and mindfulness to support mental health while working to empower children, adolescents, adults, and their families to advocate against the injustices impacting their community.

Youth connecting and supporting each other as part of One Common Unity's Fly By Light summer youth retreat at Catoctin Mountain Park in Maryland.

For 20 years One Common Unity has been at the forefront of healing communities and positive youth development work in our Nation’s Capital. We know and understand how mental health for our youth is of paramount importance. In a 2017 study by The Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine, high school students with significant symptoms of depression are more than twice as likely to drop out compared to their peers. The National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice released a study indicating that 70.4% of youth in the juvenile justice system have a diagnosed mental illness. That means that with mental health disorders increasing we could also see a huge increase in incarceration, one that we are not prepared for and that will only exacerbate systemic racial injustice.

For all of us, the way we begin to personally address the mental health crisis is by holding self-compassion and self-care as top priorities. It is from this space that we can then positively impact the world around us. It is more than just a virus that is contagious. Our thoughts, our words, our actions are also contagious. If you are leading and role-modeling for kids, parents, or teachers, when you are balanced, patient, kind, compassionate, grounded, and calm then they are likely to respond in a similar fashion. If you walk into a room (of peers, friends, colleagues, or strangers) with a huge smile they will respond and mirror your smile and emotion. As leaders out here in the world, managing teams, spending long days with our children, and showing up to support our friends who may not feel well, we have so much power in the simple ways we interact with the people in our lives.

Sometimes the best way to support a person’s mental health is to ask them how they are doing and listen intentionally. Reach out to some friends you haven’t spoken to in years and ask them how they are holding up. Tell someone you miss them and the old times you used to share. This may even be a great time to heal and mend some relationships that were broken. One powerful way to show up in this moment of crisis is to show people you care about them.

For Mental Health Awareness Month help to spread the word and support your local organizations that are filling this huge gap for people that need care. To learn more about One Common Unity and to help ensure our therapists can continue to offer essential support to hundreds of individuals in need then please donate to our COVID-19 Emergency Mental Health Care Campaign Page.

Hawah Kasat One Common Unity

Hawah Kasat

Hawah Kasat is the co-founder and executive director of “One Common Unity,” a non-profit that inspires a culture of non-violence through arts, music, and education. Hawah has authored 4 books, produced 3 documentary films (including the widely acclaimed “Fly By Light”), 2 musical CDs, and is the creator/ editor of “The Poetry of Yoga” book anthology that features Grammy award winning musicians and master yoga teachers. In 2019, Hawah was the recipient of Georgetown University’s "Legacy of a Dream" award honoring an inspirational emerging leader whose work embodies the values and spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

See the interview on NB4C with One Common Unity’s Mental Health Clinical Director (Maria Del Rosario Gomez) and Executive Director (Hawah Kasat) here.

Follow Hawah on Instagram @hawahkasat.
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