The police shooting in Montpelier of a man deemed mentally ill by his neighbors and friends is a stark reminder of the crisis so many of us face in such tumultuous times.
A recent call by a national coalition of mental health advocates for presidential candidates to focus on mental health issues is timely and valuable.
Among middle-aged and older Americans, high rates of drug overdoses and suicides have pushed U.S. life expectancy down for three years in a row for the first time in a century. In addition, rates of teen depression and suicide have soared since 2011 as social media has fueled bullying, isolation and unhappiness, affecting young people in every corner of the nation and in every type of household.
These latest trends suggest some serious concerns.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately one in five adults in the United States, or 46.6 million, experiences mental illness in a given year. Approximately one in 25 adults in the U.S., 11.2 million, experiences a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities. And approximately one in five youth aged 13 to 18, 21.4%, experiences a severe mental disorder at some point during their life. For children ages 8 to 15, the estimate is 13%.
The percentage of Vermont adults with any mental health condition is generally higher than the percentage of adults in the United States and higher than the percentage of adults in the Northeast. However, more Vermont adults are getting treatment than the national average (56% compared to 43% in 2015).
More alarming, however, is the number of emergency department visits for self harm per 100,000 Vermonters, which comes in at 142.4. Meanwhile, the percentage of adolescents in grades 9-12 who came up with a suicide plan is at 11%.
On average, adjusted for age, the annual U.S. suicide rate increased 24% between 1999 and 2014, from 10.5 to 13.0 suicides per 100,000 people, the highest rate recorded in 28 years.
Here in Vermont, the trends are troubling.
In 2016, suicide was the eighth leading cause of death for all Vermonters. During the past two decades, trends in death by suicide have increased in Vermont and the United States. Since 2000, this rate in death by suicide has increased by 49%, which is the second largest percent increase in the United States (13.2 per 100,000 persons 1999-2001 to 19.7 per 100,000 persons 2014-2016).
In recent years, more than 100 Vermonters have died by suicide each year. Vermont’s rates of suicide, calculated as the number of deaths by suicide per 100,000 people, are higher than the national averages. More men die by suicide than women in Vermont. And firearms are the method used for nearly two-thirds of the deaths by suicide.
And yet, here in Vermont, only about one-third of people who took their own life had a reported history of mental health treatment.
Our nation is in a mental health crisis. Serious mental illness costs America $193.2 billion in lost earnings per year, according to NAMI. Individuals living with serious mental illness face an increased risk of having chronic medical conditions. In fact, according to NAMI, adults in the U.S. living with serious mental illness die on average 25 years earlier than others, largely due to treatable medical conditions. And more than 90% of people who die by suicide show symptoms of a mental health condition.
Whether or not candidates endorse such specifics, their platforms must address what the next president should do to deal with a mental health crisis that is reflected not just in suicides and drug and alcohol abuse, but in growing homelessness and more deadly mass shootings. This crisis demands a cohesive, coordinated response.
Mental health is a community problem. It touches every socioeconomic status, race, identity and community. It can only be resolved collaboratively.
According the the Vermont Departments of Health and Mental Health, which are working with community partners to reduce these rates, there are steps to be taken: increase access to health care; promote positive mental health and convey the message that suicide is preventable; increase public awareness of the importance of addressing mental health issues; and promote positive youth development, among other steps.
Our nation’s leaders need to be thinking about these numbers. They are not improving as our divided nation seems to get more stressful by the day. We need solutions, funding and resources. Only then do we start to turn the tide and provide the help so many of us truly need.