Recently, I had the honor of sitting down with Caren Howard who currently serves as the Advocacy Manager for Mental Health America (MHA) and has 12 years of experience in legislative and political affairs. Ms. Howard joined MHA in January 2017 after serving as a leading fundraiser for several members of the House of Representatives. As Advocacy Manager, an integral part of Ms. Howard’s job is building the MHA Regional Policy Council’s four yearly conferences, advising strategy for influencing federal and state policymakers on a wide range of health and social justice issues, and facilitating relationship-building between MHA affiliates and officials.
Given the turbulent nature of 2020, mental health is an especially important topic of discussion, especially as we stay cooped up at home during the pandemic. I had an incredible discussion with Ms. Howard, and I hope you find her answers as insightful as I do.
Could you tell me more about Mental Health America and the work that you accomplish in your role?
Mental Health America is a consumer advocacy organization, which means that we come from the perspective of the person who has experienced a mental health condition. We work to improve systems so that people can receive better mental health care, and we also advocate for additional funding and resources for a better community-based system. ‘Community supports’, as we call them, are critical - someone can get help closer to home rather than going to a far-away hospital or institution. Overall, we advocate for the prevention of mental health conditions and mental illness for everyone. It's really important that we intervene early when these conditions first appear around teenage years and then we also move towards a recovery-oriented system that engages and empowers the individual.
How can young people get involved with MHA?
MHA has an advocacy network mailing list; we take action by reaching out to elected officials for healthcare or mental health advocacy. We send out emails to this mailing list to inform them of changes that are coming down the pipe from Congress. We also send out opportunities for this group to weigh in on by calling or emailing or posting on social media.
Young people can also get involved by getting in touch with the local MHA affiliate. We have over 200 affiliates and associates around the country in 41 states; a young person can volunteer with the organization or learn more about the programs offered through these affiliates. Finally, we would love for young people to apply for our new councils. We have a Youth Leadership Council and a Camp Intercollegiate Mental Health Council. We welcome youth to participate in listening and observing those meetings, as well as participating in other programming that we have throughout the year, like our annual conference, which is full of information.
How has COVID-19 impacted students’ mental health?
Kids are affected by COVID, more so than adults, because young people have not yet had the time and experience to build up some of the resiliency skills necessary to get through tough experiences such as this pandemic. Young people also are learning about themselves and their environment much more quickly; kids who are 14 years and younger are seeing a big chunk of their life go by, and they're unable to experience and learn about the world around them in ways that they're typically used to. Using play and interactions with their peers as ways to process what's going on around them is common for kids from ages 0 to 10. And they don't necessarily have that same opportunity to do that because of the lockdown.
Young people who are having to learn how to succeed in online learning for the first time are experiencing challenges that they've never had before. With in-person instruction, reception of information happens naturally through body language and communication style, and there are opportunities for leadership in the classroom. But this is not true in a virtual setting, so distance learning creates a barrier for young people to grow and advance academically as quickly as they're used to. And humans in general were never designed to live in isolation. We've always been a sociable animal and such, so this is especially difficult.
What is the best way to improve mental wellbeing during COVID?
Paying attention to yourself, your feelings, your thoughts, your fears, how you feel physically - that's really important. Take that inventory. Keep a journal or keep notes in your phone - check in on how your moods are changing. Do things that bring you joy, such as spending time with family, friends, talking. Try to find some alternatives to things we would do pre-COVID that also raise those dopamine and serotonin levels. Exercise, eat healthy, get enough sleep, get off your screen. Even though you have to be on screen for school and you have to be on screen at some point for social media or games, make sure that you have some off-screen time built-in. Your brain can use that time to rest. Being in touch with nature is a really important part of wellness and being in touch with ourselves in general.
If you do find that you're having some trouble feeling isolated or lonely or you might be going through a period where you're feeling overwhelmed or extremely anxious, know that you're not alone. And you can reach out to some of the mental health resources such as the Crisis Text Line. There are also emotional support lines or ‘warm lines’ that are staffed by people with lived experience of a mental health condition. So you can always call a warm line and just use that person for support. The MHA website has a lot of good information for mental health in our back to school toolkit. We also now have a BIPOC mental health toolkit. If you find that you're getting to a point where you can't handle it on your own, and you've talked to your friends, talk to a family member or a trusted adult and ask them to help you connect with a professional that you can speak to. There are a lot of mental health professionals like therapists, social workers, counselors, or even psychiatrists, and psychologists that can lend an ear and provide you with a time to vent as well as address other ways of treatment. Try to find or create a support system, whether it's a group chat, a group text, a regular check in, or set up some way that you can check in with people that you trust.
How can I speak to and help someone with a mental health problem like depression or anxiety during this stressful time?
Be there for them - this can go a really long way in just helping that person feel like they're not alone, and that they have some strength and power around them. If you know someone struggling with a mental illness, just try to be supportive and non-judgmental. And beyond just being there, be encouraging and say a kind word or two. If you feel like it’s getting to the point where you're not getting through to the person, ask someone else to check in with them and just see how they're doing. Just know your kind words, your presence, or just sending them a message or a meme - all of those are meaningful.