The stigma surrounding mental health is still heartbreakingly present in our day-to-day lives — but in 2021 we made more progress than ever before in breaking down that stigma.
At the beginning of the year, Meghan Markle bravely shared with Oprah that she'd struggled with suicidal ideation. In the summer, Simone Biles pulled out of the Tokyo Olympic games to focus on her mental health. Later, Naomi Osaka pulled out of the French Open citing mental health, and bravely sharing her struggle with depression. These instances all put the importance of mental health on a global stage — and the world came together to acknowledge the importance of caring for our mental health just like we would physical health.
And it wasn't just celebrity moments that moved the needle of progress in breaking down mental health stigma — states ad school districts recognized the need among students in lockdown, North Carolina became the latest state to open a respite center as an alternative to hospitalization for people struggling with their mental health.
We still have a long way to go in reaching a better, more empathetic understanding of mental health — but we made a lot of progress in 2021.
Helping to break the stigma around mental health, Meghan Markle bravely shared her struggle with suicidal ideation in her interview with Oprah
In an interview, Meghan bravely opened up to Oprah about her struggle with mental health, and that she contemplated suicide.
“I knew that if I didn’t say it, I would do it. I just didn’t want to be alive anymore. And that was a very clear and real and frightening constant thought,” she told Oprah. “There’s so many people who are afraid to voice that they need help.”
Helping further break the stigma surrounding mental health, Meghan stressed the importance of and courage it takes to ask for help. She also encouraged compassion and empathy for others — no matter what things may look like on the outside.
“[It’s] so important for people to remember… you have no idea what’s going on for someone behind closed doors. No idea. Even the people that smile and shine the brightest lights. You need to have compassion for what it actually potentially going on. That takes so much courage to admit that you need help.”
Japan appointed a “Minister of Loneliness” to help the country address social isolation and loneliness
This story includes statistics about suicide in Japan. If that's a challenging topic for you, please feel free to scroll past! 💜
In an effort to reduce loneliness and social isolation, in February Japan appointed a “Minister of Loneliness.”
Japan has a history of high suicide rates, and suicide is the leading cause of death in men aged 20–44 in the country. Rates have been declining steadily since 2003, but in 2020 rates began to rise again. Last October, more people died from suicide than had died from COVID-19 in Japan in all of 2020.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga appointed Tetsushi Sakamoto to oversee government policies to deal with loneliness and isolation. The minister will primarily oversee the coordination of efforts between different ministries that hope to address the issue alongside a task force.
“Women are suffering from isolation more [than men are], and the number of suicides is on a rising trend," Suga told Sakamoto at a news conference announcing the new role, according to the Japan Times. "I hope you will identify problems and promote policy measures comprehensively."
Loneliness and isolation impact not only mental health, but physical health, too: According to reporting from Insider in 2018, loneliness can lead to depression, inflammation in the body, increased risk of heart disease, and early risk of death.
The U.K. was the first country to appoint a loneliness minister in 2018, after a 2017 report from the Jo Cox Foundation found that more than nine million people in the U.K. said they often or always felt lonely.
While it’s too soon to know if these initiatives will be effective, we feel hopeful about governments innovating as they create new solutions to problems that have long been ignored.
Defying fears about lockdowns, suicides in the U.S. saw the largest annual drop in decades in 2020
This story includes statistics around suicide in the U.S. If that's a difficult topic for you, please feel free to scroll past! 💜
Last year, the number of U.S. suicides fell nearly 6% — the largest annual decline in at least four decades, according to early government data.
Dr. Christine Moutier, chief medical officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, told the Associated Press that while it's hard to determine exactly what caused the drop, it could have been a combination of factors like an increase in the availability of telehealth services, initiatives already in place aimed at reducing the U.S. suicide rate... and a phenomenon often seen early on during wars and other natural disasters.
“There’s a heroism phase in every disaster period, where we’re banding together and expressing lots of messages of support that we’re in this together,” Dr. Moutier said.
The U.S. has a devastating recent history with suicide rates, often making it to the top-ten leading causes of death. The number of suicides in the U.S. increased steadily from 2000 to 2018, when it hit the highest rate since 1941. It declined slightly in 2019, and then further last year. In 2020, CDC reported the number fell to below 45,000, the lowest number of U.S. suicide deaths since 2015.
It fills us with so much hope that the efforts of organizations around the country, plus all our individual efforts to come together amidst the undeniable impact of lockdowns on mental health has resulted in a decrease in suicides.
We need each other.
This woman staked encouraging signs in yards around her community and started a global movement
All over the world, mysterious signs have been popping up in people's yards. They say things like: “Don’t give up.” “You are worthy of love.” “Your mistakes don’t define you.” This week on the Sounds Good podcast, we’re introducing you to the woman behind these messages and the now-global movement: Amy Wolff.
One weekend in 2017, Amy Wolff and her family anonymously staked signs in yards around their small town of Newberg, Oregon. They had just learned of suicide rates in their town and wanted to find a way to encourage community members. Little did they know, their project would turn into a global movement featured on Good Morning America, Yahoo, the Washington Post, NowThis, and on countless other media.
Within days, Amy incorporated Don’t Give Up Signs as a nonprofit, and products (which the organization sells at-cost) have now shipped to all 50 U.S. states and 26 countries, including the Philippines, Rwanda, Costa Rica, and Zambia.
Now the movement is serving as more than as a response to suicide — it’s also comforting cancer patients, those enduring the loss of a loved one, and those recovering from sexual assault and inspiring people to have the courage to leave abusive relationships or overcome addiction.
Lawmakers in at least 8 states are spending millions more on mental health services
Now Colorado policymakers are gearing up to spend big on mental health and substance use disorder services, thanks to the March federal COVID-19 relief package, the mammoth American Rescue Plan Act.
Lawmakers this spring voted to spend $550 million that Colorado received under the law on behavioral health services. That’s on top of grants for such services that the law earmarked for the state, as well as emergency funds allocated to Colorado schools that can be spent on efforts to improve students’ mental health.
The extra money authorized by the legislature and block grants alone add up to more than a third of what the state typically spends on behavioral health each year, said Robert Werthwein, director of the state’s Office of Behavioral Health.
Colorado committed to giving all kids and teens 3 free therapy sessions to help cope with the pandemic
A new, bipartisan bill in the Colorado House will give anyone in the state 18 years old and under a free mental health screening, and up to 3 subsequent sessions with a mental health professional. The goal of the bill is to help kids deal with the impact of coronavirus.
“We know that kids who are getting the support that they need are healthier and more successful at school,” state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a sponsor of the bill, told the Colorado Sun.
Michaelson Jenet started proposing the legislation earlier this year, and when Governor Jared Polis' administration announced a similar proposal — lawmakers came together to form the latest bill. It includes a one-time allocation of $9 million, to reimburse providers for their time, and is funded by a pending state coronavirus stimulus bill.
Children’s Hospital Colorado said it's seen a spike in mental health-related visits, and parents across Colorado have reported mental health issues among their children as they’ve been isolated from friends during the pandemic.
The bill appears to be on a fast-track for passage, and Michaelson Jenet said she hopes screenings could start as soon as before the end of the current school year.
Getting mental health support is so important, and the pandemic has only exacerbated that need. We're celebrating Colorado lawmakers for removing barriers to make access mental health resources a priority for its young people!
Meditation app Calm offered to pay fines for tennis players who skipped Grand Slam press events
Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open to prioritize her mental health. Earlier in the week, she was fined $15,000 for skipping a post-match press conference, saying she has suffered from depression and decided to skip the press event "to exercise self-care."
Following her withdrawal from the Grand Slam event, the meditation app Calm announced it would pay fines for tennis players who skip Grand Slam press events.
To support Osaka's decision, the company said they would be donating $15,000 to French youth sports charity Laureus, "an organization doing incredible work in the mental health space to transform the lives of young people through the power of sport."
Calm added that it was "bigger than any one player," and announced it would also pay the fine of any Grand Slam tennis player who decides to opt-out of a media appearance because of their mental health.
"Mental health is health," Calm tweeted.
While it was heartbreaking to watch many of the responses to Osaka's announcement, we stand with her for prioritizing her mental health — and hope it's only the beginning for more athletes and organizations (sports, business, and all others!) doing the same. We're thrilled to see that Calm is stepping up to make it an option for tennis players.
North Carolina just opened its first peer-run ‘respite center’ as an alternative to hospitalization for people in mental health distress
A mental health agency in Charlotte run by people with lived experience just opened North Carolina’s first peer-run "respite center" as an alternative to landing in the emergency room for people experiencing mental health issues.
“Retreat @ the Plaza” opened in Charlotte in early August and is run by Promise Resource Network. It’s the first peer-run respite house in North Carolina, meaning it’s completely staffed by people who have experienced mental illness, psychiatric hospitalizations, homelessness, incarceration, substance use, or a combination of these.
The peer-run respite facility is free to participants and is designed to be a completely voluntary alternative for people who would otherwise seek mental health crisis care through the emergency room and possibly be involuntarily committed to a hospital.
Students in Illinois can now take up to 5 ‘mental health days’ each school year
In a new law, which passed unanimously in the Illinois Senate and House before signed into law by the governor, all students in Illinois can now take up to 5 excused mental health days each school year.
The bill amended the current school code to include mental and behavioral health as a valid reason to miss school.
"It's critical that schools are offering support to students who struggle with their mental health," one of the bill's sponsors, Representative Barbara Hernandez said in a statement. "Just as we would allow a student with a cold or fever to stay home from school, students should be able to have the same treatment for days where they need a break for their mental health."
The law also encourages schools to connect students with mental health resources.
Especially following multiple school years where more and more students (and people in general) have noted struggling with their mental health, we're celebrating this news coming out of Illinois. We're hopeful this step will only continue to help break down stigma surrounding mental health, and treat it with care, just as we would physical health.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, or text HOME to 741741 to text with a trained Crisis Text Line counselor. Learn how to support someone who is contemplating suicide here.