Guest Commentary: Do more to help with mental health in Sussex County


Brian Olson is the CEO of La Red Health Center.

Mental Health Awareness Month drew to a close last month, yet it is crucial that we reflect upon the significance of removing the shame associated with mental illness and continue to press for improved access to mental health care in Sussex County and in Delaware as a whole.

Individuals struggling with their mental health deserve our attention, compassion, commitment and care. Countless individuals suffer alone due to misconceptions about mental health. Those misconceptions are sometimes as big of a barrier as a lack of finances and access to care are.

Mental illness affects individuals from all walks of life, regardless of age, gender or background. According to the Delaware Division of Public Health’s My Healthy Community website, 18.4% of Sussex County adults experienced depression between 2012-21. The trend shows the percentage of adults struggling in Sussex County has increased 24% since 2019.

Results from the 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Study show that Delaware middle school students are increasingly struggling with their mental health. Girls, in particular, are most at risk for suicide. The study showed that 19.2% of Delaware middle school students thought about killing themselves. The majority were eighth grade females, and 14.5% had actually developed a plan. Hispanic and Black girls were most at risk, with White girls not far behind.

The growing number of individuals both young and old reporting depression and suicidal thoughts demands our community’s immediate attention and help.

Regrettably, the biggest obstacle to getting help is often shame. As a community, we need to dismantle the stereotypes that prevent people from seeking treatment for mental illness. Mental health and physical health are often linked and should be viewed as one and the same.

It’s important for all of us, and in particular the medical community, to create safe spaces where individuals feel comfortable sharing what they are experiencing, so ultimately, they can obtain treatment and support. By talking openly about mental health, we can dispel misconceptions and promote understanding, which can lead people to seek treatment.

Understanding is not enough; we also need to do more to promote access to care for all who need it. Sussex County, like communities throughout our state, has significant challenges in providing adequate mental health services to its residents.

According to the University of Delaware’s 2019 Mental Health Professionals in Delaware report, the ratio for full-time mental health specialists in Sussex County is 1 per 1,433 people. Statewide, the ratio is 1 per 1,278. The number of providers who can speak Spanish statewide is even less.

According to the report, across the state, 47% of psychiatrists and 14% of mental health specialists were able to speak a language other than English. In Sussex County, no psychiatrists and just 14% of mental health specialists reported speaking a language other than English, according to the report.

Limited resources, long waiting lists and a shortage of mental health professionals create barriers that prevent individuals from receiving timely and appropriate care.

We need to do better. To overcome these obstacles, it is crucial that we advocate for increased funding and support for mental health programs in our county and state. Collaboration between government agencies, health care providers and community organizations can lead to the development of comprehensive mental health services that cater to the diverse needs of our population.

Investing in mental health is an investment in the overall health of our community. Mental illness not only affects individuals directly but has a ripple effect on families, workplaces and the communities we live in.

The end of Mental Health Awareness Month should not be the end of the conversation surrounding mental health. It should be just the beginning.

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