When Simone Biles became the world all-around champion in October for the sixth time—becoming the most decorated gymnast in the history of the sport—she did more than prove she is an extraordinary athlete. She showed the importance of putting her mental health first.
Remember the headlines she garnered for stepping away from the Tokyo Olympics two years ago. While she faced a backlash from some quarters for her decision to face the “twisties”—that dangerous condition when a gymnast’s brain and body aren’t in synch—she showed admirable courage in going public. And since then, she has proved to have amazing resilience in regaining her footing.
Her story and that of other athletes like Michael Phelps and actors like Mayim Bialik (who shares her personal journey in this issue of Trend) have helped push our national conversation on mental health into the open after too many years in the shadows. It is happening none too soon. The number of Americans contending with anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses had been on the rise before COVID-19 became a continuing part of our daily lives. And only a year into the pandemic, an alarming acceleration was clear when a Pew Research Center survey reported that a third of U.S. adults were experiencing regular sleeplessness and anxiety.
The concerns have only grown. Earlier this year, the Center reported that mental health was the top fear parents had for their children, with 4 in 10 saying they were extremely or very worried that their children might struggle with anxiety or depression—higher than worries about bullying, drug use, or violence. At the same time, the nation has seen dramatic increases in suicide and a rise in substance use disorders, with statistics showing that half of those battling these disorders also grapple with mental illness.
The Pew Charitable Trusts hopes to bolster the civic infrastructure we need to contend with these concerns and help make systemic changes that improve lives and help us all thrive. We’re working to improve the continuum of care for those people who find themselves in the criminal justice system because of mental health episodes; to raise public awareness of the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, which increases access to counseling; to see suicide screening become part of the routine questions patients answer in their interactions with their doctors; and to ensure that those suffering from substance use disorder have needed medications through telemedicine so that they have time to live and work rather than spending hours each day in clinics.
Beyond those critical efforts, we also are publishing this issue of Trend. We hope it helps illuminate the scope of the mental health problem facing the nation, removes the stubborn stigma too often assigned to those facing mental health issues, and contributes to the conversations that lead to lasting change. Much is needed to make that change, including a cultural shift in the workplace—where mental health is integrally related to efforts to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion—and finding ways to build resilience in children.
The challenges are great and deserving of attention and remedy. As Dr. Thomas Insel—the former director of the National Institute of Mental Health, who’s been called the “nation’s psychiatrist”—writes in this issue, there are two kinds of American families: those struggling with mental illness and those not struggling—yet.
I always ask Pew’s remarkable staff and our partners to take good care of each other. By calling attention to the systemic improvements necessary to care for those in need, I hope as a society we are all led to take good care of each other, too.