There’s a lot we are yelling about right now, and rightly so. There’s the pandemic, of course. Lost jobs. The slow recovery. The election. Racial justice issues. 

But we’re only whispering about one of the most important issues facing our state—and our nation—right now: the toll this era is taking on our mental health. 

We’ve always been shy talking about mental health. It’s time to get over that. The U.S. is in the middle of a mental health crisis the likes of which we haven’t seen in a lifetime. The latest surveys from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that 41 percent of respondents report mental health issues. That’s three times more than last year. The percentage of people reporting serious mental health issues is seven times higher than it was a year ago.

The pandemic is affecting everyone, but we know some groups are more impacted than others. Young adults ages 18 to 24, young children, seniors, caregivers, essential workers, and Black and Latinx communities are especially hurting. This is not something that will just go away as the pandemic continues. In fact, many have predicted a surge of mental health challenges coming as the reality of prolonged grief and sustained stress takes a toll on more and more of us. 

There are things all of us can do to bring this issue to greater visibility. At the Institute of Emerging Issues (IEI) at North Carolina State University, we convened two statewide virtual conversations in late October to highlight the problem.

But if we are truly going to raise awareness of this issue and get more people more help, the real work needs to happen on a community level. We’ve looked across the state and found six community efforts we believe could inspire the rest of the state. We want to lift up their work in addressing mental health challenges and near-term needs while building support systems to thrive in a post-pandemic world.

El Futuro, with a presence in Durham and Siler City, is one of the organizations leading the way in North Carolina. El Futuro encourages families to live out their dreams by providing culturally responsive mental health and substance use treatment for low-resourced Latinx families in an outpatient setting. They bring services to the community through telebehavioral health, school-based treatment, case management, and group programs.

North Carolina’s one million Latinx residents are one of the state’s strongest assets, yet disproportionate levels of traumatic experiences related to poverty and migration, combined with significant barriers to accessing quality mental health treatment, mean they are also one of our most vulnerable communities. 

“There’s something called the immigrant paradox, where when people migrate to North Carolina and to the U.S., they’re generally more healthy when they first come,” Dr. David Lucas “Luke” Smith, executive director of El Futuro, said during the Mental Health & Well-Being virtual gathering. “The longer they stay, the more they take on characteristics of our community, which is we see higher rates of mental illness.”

The disparities in health and economic outcomes presented by the COVID-19 pandemic only increase those vulnerabilities. In partnership with La Mesita Mental Health Provider Network (with more than 800 members around the state) and other community partners, El Futuro is improving the standards of culturally responsive treatment available to Latinx families in N.C. and implementing creative and therapeutic placemaking to encourage healthy social connectivity and exposure to the natural environment in support of improved Latinx mental health.

If we are going to make progress in meeting people where they are during the pandemic, we need to stop whispering and start speaking up about making mental health services available to everyone who needs them. People all across the state can learn a lot from El Futuro. 

Leslie Boney is the Director of the Institute for Emerging Issues at NC State University. Leslie leads the institute’s efforts to identify key issues of importance to the state and develop consensus for action to address them.

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