Peter Reichard: Is America’s sense of well-being slipping away?

Utah Foundation will host an Aug. 26 briefing on the state of mental health in Utah.

A couple of years back, a mental health professional asked me to sit down with him. He had noticed a big uptick in his teen patients coming in with an acute sense of foreboding. Among the issues that seemed to trouble them most were apocalyptic worries about global climate change ruining their future. But it wasn’t the topic that alarmed the therapist most; it was the growing anxiety.

And that was before 2020. That was before a pandemic, lockdowns, economic consequences and civil unrest spanning from Portland and Seattle to the U.S. Capitol.

Now, by a number of measures, our nation’s sense of well-being appears to be unraveling.

According to the National Health Interview Survey, 10.8% of adults aged 18 and over had symptoms of anxiety disorder or depression. As the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread across the U.S., those percentages jumped dramatically, peaking in mid-November 2020, when 43% of respondents reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder.

For teen mental health, the numbers likewise are troubling. The CDC found that, in 2020, the proportion of mental health-related emergency room visits among those aged 12 to 17 rose 31% over 2019. As time goes on, teenage girls appear to be hard-hit. Emergency room visits for suspected suicide attempts among girls 12 to 17 increased 50% last winter over the previous year.

The National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice looked at 34 American cities and found that, in 2020, homicide rates shot up 30% higher than in 2019. As of the first quarter of 2021, the rates in those cities continued to escalate. Criminologists say the surge is unprecedented.

Deaths from drug overdoses also went through the roof. While overdose deaths hit an all-time high of 72,000 in 2019, the number rose an astounding 29% in 2020, to 93,000.

The Utah Foundation will explore such challenges in an Aug. 26 Breakfast Briefing entitled, “Mental Health in Anxious Times: Emerging Challenges to Utahns’ Well-Being and How We Can Address Them.”

The panelists will include Brigham Young University psychology professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a nationally-recognized expert on the health implications of social connection and isolation; Mark Rapaport, CEO of the Huntsman Mental Health Institute at University of Utah School of Medicine and a national leader in the psychiatric profession; and Doug Thomas, director of the Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health for the State of Utah. The online event is free to the public.

It would be easy to blame all the bad mental health news entirely on the pandemic, shutdown, social unrest and other 2020-21 factors. But it appears that there were some trends already in place prior to 2020 that simply accelerated. From the turn of the millennium to 2017, drug overdose deaths were rising at a rapid clip, with a particularly strong upswing beginning in 2014. Opioids have been a key driver: Deaths from opioids in the U.S. doubled during 2000 to 2006 – then doubled again during the subsequent 10 years. As with suicide, deaths from drug overdose among men is far more pronounced than among women. However, the upward trend in overdoses is strong among both sexes. And a burst in antidepressant use during the first half of the 2010s was far more pronounced among women.

New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt recently pointed out that something has gone wrong with teenagers, and he looks to the dawn of smartphones and social media. Beginning in 2004, the percentage of students worldwide reporting loneliness at school began climbing upward. From 2012 forward, the number rises sharply. From that same point forward, Haidt says, rates of teenage depression, self-harm and suicide in the U.S. have also risen sharply. Haidt cites mental health literature indicating that teens (and particularly girls) who consume lots of social media have worse health outcomes. He also suggests that heavy smartphone and social media users are losing the ability to relate well with others.

How do these challenges look in Utah? What protective factors can we emphasize? And what measures can we employ to forestall an unraveling in Utah? While our mental health issues can’t all be blamed on the pandemic, the surge in bad trends reveals the need to address those issues with urgency.

Peter Reichard is president of the Utah Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit public policy organization. Reach him at peter@utahfounation.org. And register for the upcoming briefing on mental health at www.utahfoundation.org/events.