Taking on the ‘five-alarm’ mental health crisis

The latest rash of mass shootings has reignited the national conversation on gun violence and mental health. 

It’s a pattern that leaves advocates such as Schroeder Stribling, president of Mental Health America, concerned about stigma and misunderstandings of mental illness. But she also sees room for action. 

“The most important thing is that people with mental health conditions are far more likely to be victims of gun violence than perpetrators,” Stribling said in a recent interview. “That message can get lost very, very quickly.” 

“We have great concerns around stigma,” she added. “So when there is a shooting and the people turn first of all [to]: ‘What was the mental health problem that caused it?’ ” 

Speaking of the mass shooting targeting Black Americans in Buffalo, N.Y., in May, she noted: “Being motivated by hate or racial hate or political ideology is not a mental health condition, full stop.” 

Still, there are reforms that can help, she said, such as red flag laws, which allow courts to order guns to be removed from people deemed to be a risk to themselves or others. 

Supporting those laws at the state level is expected to be a major part of the emerging bipartisan gun violence prevention package in Congress, as are other provisions squarely targeted to mental health, including nationwide funding for community mental health clinics, a move that has been praised by advocates. 

Stribling has been in her role at the nonprofit advocacy group about a year, coming to it as another crisis was resonating through the world of mental health: the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The crisis among youth has been particularly pressing amid school closures and other forms of social upheaval. 

“You can just look right down the list of risk factors and see that there’s an acceleration of distress and crisis across the board,” she said. “However, clearly the five-alarm alarm is for youth.” 

Mental Health America reported that a record 5.4 million people took its online mental health screening tool in 2021, a nearly 500 percent increase from 2019, before the pandemic, with a particular increase in youth seeking help. 

“Being in school isn’t just about, you know, learning academically. It’s about social and emotional development that happens in groups with peers,” Stribling said. “So they’ve missed a lot of those developmental milestones during this time as well.” 

She said that not only is it hard to learn online, but that children spending more time online can also lead to more negative messages getting through in areas such as body image, especially for girls. 

Her group is calling for Congress to provide more funding for mental health programs, particularly related to prevention and early intervention efforts, which often get overlooked. 

Stribling said one especially effective response is counseling from peers, meaning from people who have mental health conditions themselves and become certified to help others. 

“We just had one small step forward in that it looks like peers will be covered in some Medicare programming,” she said. “That’s fantastic. And we’d like to see that expanded and even be covered in private insurance as well.” 

Insurance coverage for mental health has been a long-running battle for advocates more generally, including around requirements for “parity,” meaning that insurers need to cover mental health just as much as they do physical health. Those requirements are often not enforced, advocates say. 

“We get letters and calls routinely from people with problems in having equitable coverage for their mental health care for themselves or a family member,” Stribling said. 

In April, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) signed a law to better enforce parity in the state, which Stribling touted as one victory on the state level. 

Federally, the Senate Finance Committee is also working on a mental health package that could include parity measures. 

Before joining Mental Health America last year, Stribling worked for 18 years at N Street Village, which provides housing and support, including mental health care, for women experiencing homelessness in Washington, D.C. 

“All of my work in the last two decades has been at the intersection of poverty and the social determinants of mental health,” she said, which helped prepare her for zooming out in a national role at Mental Health America, where she has also brought a focus on underlying factors in mental issues. 

“So for instance, economic security, housing security, food security, the very basics that we know underpin our mental health,” she said. “They affect our mental health and it’s also hard to deal with any other mental health conditions that might crop up for people [if they are not addressed].” 

Stribling began her career as a social worker after going to Wellesley College and the Smith College School for Social Work. Before N Street Village, she worked at a Johns Hopkins hospital, helping set up mental health programs in Baltimore’s Head Start system. 

Outside of work, Stribling says she’s “a big yogi.” Now in her mid-50s, she’s been doing yoga since she was a teenager. 

And far from the inner workings of the brain in her day job, Stribling has a more otherworldly hobby.

“I love documentaries, and I have a special penchant for documentaries about astronomy and cosmology,” she said. 

Her work is more than cut out for her in shoring up the country’s mental health, though, coming out of the pandemic.

“Everyone’s resilience is really depleted, and there’s large scale demonstrable decline in American mental health,” she said. 

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