Op-Ed: Dealing with Tompkins County’s Mental Health Crisis

This is an op-ed written by Tompkins County Public Health Director and Mental Health Commissioner Frank Kruppa. It was not written by The Ithaca Voice. To submit comments, send them to Matt Butler at [email protected]

The Tompkins County Health and Mental Health Departments play a significant role in resolving access to mental health services and improving mental health outcomes. We provide an outpatient clinic, drug recovery support services, publish opioid statistics, have programs for mothers and new parents, and programs for children and adolescents. During this year’s Mental Health Awareness Month, we’re bringing attention to the mental health crisis and how we can improve outcomes for our community.

There has been more public discussion about mental health recently and we are grateful that there is increasing awareness and calls to action. Some conversations follow the devastating pandemic and its impact, while others point to long-standing issues that seem to be getting worse.

Individuals have experienced trauma and loss, leading to increased cases of anxiety, drug use, loneliness and depression, even among those who have never experienced these mental health issues before. This list may resonate with you or someone you care about. There is support for people in crisis and recovery, but not enough of it. Mental health needs are increasing and the availability of care is not keeping pace.

Last October, practicing physicians in the US saw a 10-12% increase in anxiety, depression, substance use, and related disorders and reported that mental health referrals doubled between 2020 and 2021. The CDC found that in 2020, 13% of Americans began or increased their substance use to cope with the stress of COVID-19.

The crisis is also local. In 2022, our local 2-1-1 informational hotline has seen a 37% increase in calls involving mental health, drug use, or other behavioral health needs compared to this time in the last year to date. Our mental health department saw a 29% increase in referrals from 2020 to 2021 – we are on track to surpass that referral rate this year.

When middle and high school students were asked to self-report their mental health in 2021, they reported feeling sad/depressed more often, feeling like “life isn’t worth it,” and that they “Not good” in one have increased in percentage compared to previous years. Our children tell us that they need help. If that doesn’t grab our attention, what will?

We also know that these problems are compounded for people who have historically been discriminated against and marginalized. Any conversation about mental health outcomes must include how we are improving the delivery of inclusive care for people of color, LGBTQIA+ individuals and others who have experienced trauma related to systemic discrimination. Anything less than compassionate, culturally responsive, and accessible care is unacceptable.

A more extensive and diversified staffing of the pension systems is necessary. There are many professionals in our community who have dedicated their lives to this work. They’re tired and need backup. Whether you’re a seasoned professional or just starting out on your journey, consider our mental health system – we could use caring people like you.

This year, the Tompkins County Departments of Health and Mental Health will be combined into one department better suited to support the overall health of our community. We will provide our community with a unified approach aimed at addressing systemic concerns and barriers to supply and improving the well-being of all Tompkins County residents.

Our role is to address the systems I’ve written about here and understand the overall health of the community. There are also meaningful things each of us can do to support one another:

  • Consider social determinants of health (how the environment affects health outcomes and risks) and what role you might play in maintaining or managing these social determinants. Housing, education, income, discrimination, access to food, and language and literacy are examples of social determinants of people’s health and mental health.
  • Reach out to others in your community. Share resources and stay connected. Assisting those in need may require connecting someone directly to a service to make that first, difficult step a little easier. And while you care about the well-being of others, don’t forget to look after yourself too and seek help if you need it.
  • If you have or work with children, think about your role as a caregiver, mentor, or safe space provider. Safe, stable, and nurturing relationships build the resilience of individuals and communities and have a positive impact on mental health outcomes. Read more about the benefits of relationships for youth at the local Be the One campaign.
  • If you are a professional care provider, consider how you and your practice can better invite and serve marginalized groups. Consider the training you offer, the associations you belong to, and the resources you make available to your customers. Get feedback from your customers and consider changes that better serve everyone and accommodate different identities and cultures.
  • If your job involves managing people, think about the stress your employees and colleagues might be under, think about how the work could be structured to better serve the needs of people and their families, which ones Support you offer in your workplace and how you communicate with your colleagues. Consider taking a course in mental health first aid; local training is available.

With more awareness of the systems we are a part of and the role we all play in the lives of others, we can positively impact our community’s mental health outcomes. The smallest actions that all of us can multiply can increase the number of overdose deaths, the number of domestic violence cases, the number of emergency room visits, the number of people experiencing homelessness, and the number of people living under mental crises, but we must do it together.

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