Shift from self-care to systemic change this Mental Health Awareness Month


One of the few things that 90% of Americans seem to agree with these days is that we are in the midst of a mental health crisis. So how can we translate this feeling into concrete actions that improve mental health?

With Mental Health Awareness Month on the horizon, there’s no shortage of articles promoting meditation apps, vacations, and calming breathing exercises. Interventions at the individual level are necessary, but they alone cannot achieve sustainable progress. It is imperative to shift the status quo from the current web of policies and norms that ignore and penalize individuals with mental health and substance use needs.

As CEO of the Colorado State Mental Health Association, I am leading the national Care Not Cuffs initiative that separates these needs from the criminalized system. Without an adequate system of care, we fail to respond to crises. Often this involves arrests and processing by the criminal court system. This is exactly how prisons and detention centers have become America’s premier mental health and addiction facilities, despite being undesigned and unstaffed to meet their needs.

Those incarcerated with health needs often encounter responses that only make their situation worse, such as solitary confinement, a practice that puts them at high risk of dying within the first year of their release from prison. are also at high risk of suicide. The costly and destabilizing effects of incarceration persist long after individuals are released, often exacerbating the very problems that initially led to their involvement in the system.

Having a criminal record is a big obstacle to finding a stable job or housing. Even spending one night in prison without being convicted could cost someone their job. The inability to meet basic needs negatively impacts mental and physical health and increases the risk of disorderly drug use and future interactions with law enforcement and criminal courts. So the cycle continues.

The impact is not limited to individuals. Entire families are feeling the ripple effects as they deal with the economic and emotional toll of disbanding their forces due to imprisonment. Self-care can help and is often essential to reduce daily habits. But we must strive for a world in which communities, especially those disproportionately affected by incarceration, do not fall into this cycle in the first place.

Harsh treatment of individuals in need of health often begins long before the courts intervene. Students with unmet health needs are frequently suspended or expelled from school. Imagine a student struggling with homelessness, or a student whose parents are incarcerated and whose classes are often disrupted as a result. Suspensions will likely cause them to fall further behind, have difficulty graduating and entering higher education, and create an uphill battle for economic security. Suspending does not address the root cause of the behavior.

Surface-level self-care solutions may not be enough for this student. In many cases, what is really needed is access to culturally appropriate mental health care and a stable home to meet basic needs.

Words alone will not change. To effectively address the youth mental health crisis, funds must be allocated to critical resources such as school counselor and psychologist jobs. Funding is also part of the solution to inhumane practices in prisons and detention centers, such as solitary confinement and restraints used to hold prisoners in mental health crises. If the corrections department is to be expected to provide care-based alternatives, it must be appropriately staffed with specialists to meet medical needs.

If cities and states invest in basic needs such as housing, affordable childcare, access to food and a living wage, we can expect overall improvements in health and crime rates. When basic needs are met, people can find stability that can foster strong growth and transform their lives. We are creating an intergenerational society that ignores basic requirements for health and well-being, makes our communities less safe, and prevents generations of Americans from living to their full potential. The cycle of discrimination must end.

Establishing personal habits to keep ourselves healthy is always important, but self-care practices can be exhausting when faced with a constant barrage of obstacles. Relentless reminders like wearing face masks, taking deep breaths, and lighting candles address systemic problems that keep the health and well-being of so many Americans out of reach. you can’t.

We have to change the narrative from caring for ourselves to caring for each other. Now is the time to start that dialogue and make sure that those we have elected to represent us understand that this is a priority. If we consistently meet health needs through care, we can build healthier, safer communities populated by strong, prosperous individuals.

Vincent Achity is President and CEO of Mental Health Colorado, where he leads the organization’s Care Not Cuffs initiative. He was previously executive director of the Equitas Project, a national effort to decouple mental health and criminal justice, and is now part of Colorado Mental Health.

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