Authors: Lauren Simonds, Senator Manka Dhingra
As we approach the holidays, it’s important to keep in mind that this time of year can be particularly challenging for individuals struggling with mental illness. Most of all, we recognize that this year’s holiday season can already feel troublesome, as we’re coping with the losses of COVID-19, limited in-person gatherings, and statewide restrictions.
While we continue to witness a parallel increase of COVID-19 cases and mental illnesses and substance abuse disorders, this season is an opportunity for the mental health community to speak out about their work and what we can do to increase access to care for all who need it.
The reality is, social distancing has proven its effectiveness to block the spread of COVID-19, but it has also placed barriers between people struggling with mental health and substance use disorders and the communities that provide them strength—families, peer groups, or health care professionals. At the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Washington we, like many other community organizations, adapted to bring classes and support groups online, offering the digital tools and training to make this a reality. Even so, we face a long road ahead to address the lasting impacts of the pandemic.
As we look ahead, one of our biggest concerns in the mental health and addiction community in Washington is state funding for behavioral health. We understand that the economic impacts of COVID-19 cannot be overstated. But cuts in intervention and community provider funding would be a step backward – especially as we are still grappling with the effects of significant budget cuts from the Great Recession. Preventing people from getting the care they need now will ultimately result in an increased need for crisis intervention later, which places a burden on our hospitals and delays vital care for those who are struggling.
We join the global community to raise awareness of the increased need for mental health and substance abuse services as we continue to address COVID-19. There are simple steps we can all take and helpful resources available 24/7:
NAMI Washington has a comprehensive guide of resources and tips, as well as a calendar of online classes, groups and other opportunities. People who need help can call the NAMI Helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), and the Crisis Text Line is open 24/7—text NAMI to 741741.
RALI Washington works with partners, like NAMI, to promote safe drug disposal and education, reminding families and individuals to do a scan of their own homes to make sure medications are securely stored and that unused medicines are safely disposed. Parents can also use resources like RALI’s virtual room to identify commonly unnoticed signs of substance misuse.
The Washington Recovery Help Line is open for people experiencing substance use disorders and mental health challenges. People can visit the website or call or text 1-866-789-1511 for support and to be connected with treatment options.
One potential bright spot amid the challenges is that Washington state has taken many steps to increase access to telehealth and expand resources for providers. The Senate Behavioral Health Subcommittee, which Sen. Dhingra chairs, will continue to promote the best uses of telemedicine to increase access and incorporate other innovations on a permanent basis. We encourage the state legislature to continue to prioritize these needs and the services that offer invaluable support moving forward, even when we can return more safely to in-person interaction.
During this holiday season, don’t let physical distance stop you from checking in on your friends, neighbors, colleagues and family members, especially those who are addressing mental health and substance abuse challenges at work and at home. As our elected officials and community organizations ensure there is sustained access to essential services, we can all do our part to approach this issue with compassion. The need for mental health services is only going to continue to grow as we face COVID-19 – we cannot afford to deprioritize it.
Lauren Simonds is Executive Director/CEO of NAMI Washington. NAMI Washington is a member of the Rx Abuse Leadership Initiative (RALI) of Washington.
Manka Dhingra, the state senator from the 45th Legislative District, chairs the Senate Behavioral Health Subcommittee and is a current board member and past president of NAMI-Eastside.