There’s a lot we are yelling about right now, and rightly so. There’s the pandemic, of course. Lost jobs. The slow recovery. The elections. Racial justice issues.

But we’re only whispering about one of the most important issues facing our state — and our nation — right now: the toll this time is taking on our mental health.

We’ve always been shy talking about mental health. It’s time to get over that now, more than ever. The U.S. is in the middle of a mental health crisis the likes of which we haven’t seen in a lifetime. The latest surveys from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show 41 percent of respondents (four out of every 10 of us) report mental health issues. That’s three times the number at the same time last year. The percentage of people reporting serious mental health issues is seven times higher than it was a year ago.

The pandemic is affecting everyone, but we know some groups are more impacted than others. Young adults ages 18-24, young children, seniors, caregivers, essential workers, and Black and Latinx communities are especially hurting. This is not something that will just go away as the pandemic continues. In fact, many have predicted a surge of mental health challenges coming as the reality of prolonged grief and sustained stress takes a toll on more and more of us.

There are things all of us can do to bring this issue to greater visibility. At the Institute of Emerging Issues, we convened two statewide virtual conversations in late October to highlight the problem.

But if we are going to truly raise awareness of this issue and get more people more help, the real work needs to happen on a community level. We’ve looked across the state and found six community efforts we believe could inspire the rest of the state. We want to lift up their work in addressing mental health challenges and near-term needs while building support systems to thrive in a post-pandemic world.

A coalition of groups in northwest NC is leading the way with an effort called “RESOURCES and REASONS TO GROW.”

NAMI High Country is partnering with Appalachian Regional Libraries to broaden the commitment to creating “welcoming communities” supporting mental health recovery in Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Watauga and Wilkes counties. Abundant evidence shows that community inclusion is a feasible alternative to inactive and isolated lives and is a medical necessity.

“These will be places without stigma or shame where peer support specialists assist seekers who are healing from trauma, creating collective impact through networking while embracing a competitive global economy,” said Karen Gross, Chairperson of the Community and Family Advisory Committee for Northern Region CFAC Vaya Health.

Due to COVID-19, the partnership had to pivot from in-person gatherings to virtual author interviews, direct mailings of thematic books, and other COVID-19 sensitive opportunities. The coalition is looking for additional ways to help connect the mountain villages in Ashe County to needed resources. They are particularly interested in founding a local recovery resource hub where seekers can learn and network about growth opportunities.

If we are going to make progress in meeting people where they are during the pandemic, we need to stop whispering and start speaking up about making mental health services available to everyone who needs them. People all across the state can learn a lot from this group’s collaborative work.

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By Leslie Boney, director of the Institute for Emerging Issues at NC State University who leads the Institute’s efforts to identify key issues of importance to the state and develop consensus for action to address.

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