Exclusive poll: Overwhelming majority says the U.S. faces a mental health crisis

WASHINGTON – An overwhelming majority of Americans believe the U.S. is in the grips of a full-blown mental health crisis, according to a new USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll

Nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought a rise in depression, anxiety, stress, addiction and other challenges, almost nine in ten registered voters believe there’s a "mental health crisis" in the nation, the poll found. 

While it may be rare to find such unanimity in a nation divided over so many issues, mental health experts said they’re not surprised.

Shelli Avenevoli, deputy director for the National Institute of Mental Health, said mental health is top of mind for people. Even if someone isn't experiencing problems themselves, they know someone who is, she said.

“I think people are recognizing that this is more serious than just some mild feelings of depression and anxiety among a few people,” Avenevoli said. “This is pretty significant and pretty pervasive in the community.”

Jared Skillings, chief of professional practice for the American Psychological Association,  said the USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll shows that the mental health crisis is no longer just a discussion among academics or in elite policy circles.

“This is regular folks,” he said.

He hopes that widespread concern will provide the political pressure to go beyond the short-term fixes he said have been offered so far.

“We have not seen the kind of reform and the kind of really overt prioritization that we need to see,” Skillings said.

Last month, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy used the word “crisis” in calling for a “swift and coordinated response” to mental health challenges in children, adolescents, and young adults.

Vivek Murthy served as U.S. surgeon general during the Obama administration.

In his advisory, a step reserved for major public health challenges that need immediate action, Murthy said the pandemic has had a “devastating” effect on the mental health of young people who had already been struggling at an alarming rate with feelings of helplessness, depression and thoughts of suicide.

“Life just feels very unstable for folks in that age range,” said Skillings. The ability to go to school, have a stable job and other basic life steps can no longer be taken for granted. They may also have had to deal with illness, or even death, in their family from COVID-19, he said.

Robert Caraballo, a 21-year-old community college student from Massachusetts, described the past year as chaotic. After getting COVID despite being vaccinated, Carabello felt like he was at a breaking point.

“Mentally, it was awful,” said Caraballo, one of the respondents to the USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll.

He’s not alone.

In 2021, more people around the world Googled “how to maintain mental health” than ever before. Queries surged nearly 70% between April and May, according to Google.

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An August survey for the American Psychological Association found many people were feeling overwhelmed by day-to-day struggles. The need for constant risk assessment, upended routines and uncertainty about where the pandemic is going can be exhausting, the group said.

Candice Walters, a 44-year-old ticket broker from Utah, said she’s living in a constant state of wondering, “When’s the next shoe going to drop? What’s going to  happen now?”

Although Walters was able to work more in 2021 after public events returned, she fears events could shut down again because of the spike in COVID-19 cases from the highly transmissible omicron variant.

“There’s just this constant cloud of not knowing,” she said.

The survey of 1,000 registered voters like Walters was taken by cellphone and landline Dec. 27 to Dec. 30.

A majority of those surveyed also said poor mental health is primarily responsible for mass shootings, alcohol and drug addiction, and suicides.

The $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package passed last March included billions of dollars to prevent and treat mental health and substance abuse disorders, including services offered through elementary and secondary schools.

“We could be just at the start of a major investment in mental health and suicide prevention in our country,” said Dr. Christine Moutier, chief medical officer for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

But the nation’s fractured system of mental health care means money alone won’t fix the problems, Moutier said. Implementation is also important, and that can be uneven across a decentralized system, she said. 

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More cities are exploring non-police mental health emergency response programs.

One example is a long-standing effort to transition the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline from its current 10-digit number to a three-digit dialing code – 988. The goal, created by legislation passed in 2020, is to have quick-dial suicide hotline staffed by trained professionals 24 hours a day by mid-2022.

Right now, more than 2 million people a year call the Lifeline, but most people looking for help call 911, and emergency dispatchers may lack the training and resources to properly respond.

The Biden administration is prioritizing the transition, a step Moutier praised. But only a handful of states have passed or introduced legislation to build their 988 systems.

“There will be effective actions, but probably not across the board, across all states,” Moutier said, “or it will take more time in some.”

New Hampshire is using some of its federal pandemic funding to buy a private psychiatric hospital to expand services for children.

The need for inpatient mental health care for young people in that state has more than tripled since the start of the pandemic, according to the New Hampshire chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Across all age groups, estimates suggest that only half of people with mental illnesses receive treatment, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

“There are huge inequities in access to care,” said Avenevoli, the institute’s deputy director. “That's pretty much our predominant problem, the inability for all people to have equal access to high-quality, evidence-based care.”

America's mental health system has been inadequate and under-resourced for decades before rising to the level of public awareness shown in the USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll, said Rachel Garfield, a vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation. She said it is “remarkable” that nearly nine out of ten adults now see mental health as a major concern for the country.

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The pandemic’s exacerbation of mental health issues, combined with the increased public discussion of everything from anxiety to languishing, could create a window of opportunity to address a longstanding public policy issue, Garfield said.

In the Kaiser Family Foundation’s November tracking survey, more than half (53%) of adults continued to say the pandemic has had a negative impact on their mental health, a rate that only slightly improved as more people got vaccinated against COVID-19. Women and younger adults have reported disproportionate impacts.

David Paleologos, director of Suffolk's Political Research Center, who had not expected such a strong response to the mental health crisis question, said elected officials would be smart to take notice – both for the good of the public and for their own political health.

“It's really a no-lose issue for our politicians and political parties,” Paleologos said, “because of how strongly people across all parties believe that it's a crisis.”

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Maureen Groppe has covered Washington for nearly three decades and is now a White House correspondent for USA TODAY. Follow her on Twitter @mgroppe.