What we learned from a massive mental health survey in the United States

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The vast majority of Americans of all ages, races, generations and backgrounds say the United States has a mental health crisis.

In a new survey from CNN and the Kaiser Family Foundation, nine in 10 Americans say the country as a whole is facing a crisis on this front and about half of adults say they have experienced a serious mental health crisis in their family. .

CNN this week published a series of articles based on the poll in conjunction with KFF. Read the main report here. And read this from CNN’s polling team on how the survey was conducted.

There’s also 988 – the three-digit number that anyone in crisis can call, but which the survey found few people know.

For a broader look at the survey results, I spoke to Ashley Kirzinger, director of survey methodology at KFF, via email about what we learned from the project. Our conversation is below.

WHAT MATTERS: It’s such a striking headline – 90% of Americans believe the United States is facing a mental health crisis. Are there many things that 90% of Americans agree on? Also, can we say with certainty that these results suggest a change? Are more people now saying that the United States is going through a mental health crisis?

Kirzinger: You’re absolutely right, normally we talk about the division of the country and rarely do we have a data point that such a large majority of adults agree on. While we can’t definitively quantify this as a change because we don’t have a previous comparison question using the exact wording, other data points show that there has clearly been a change in people’s experiences. during the last years. For example, the share of adults reporting symptoms of anxiety or depression in federal survey data has quadrupled during the pandemic. Additionally, data from the CDC (US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has shown that there has been an increase in drug overdose deaths and suicide rates. Many of these trends predate the pandemic, and some of them have worsened. I think these additional data points help explain why such a large majority now identifies the current situation as a mental health crisis. People are seeing their friends, family members, neighbors and in some cases themselves struggling. With more than half of all adults saying they or a family member have experienced a serious mental health crisis, it stands to reason that nine in 10 people say the United States is facing a crisis.

WHAT MATTERS: What prompted CNN and KFF to undertake this project? What did you see that made you think it was worth doing?

Kirzinger: During the Covid-19 pandemic, KFF and CNN polls had indicated that there was an increase in concerns about the mental health of adults and children in the United States, both in terms of the impact of pandemic on people’s mental health, but also the barriers for those seeking mental health. The stress and worry around themselves and loved ones getting sick or dying from Covid-19, job losses, loss of childcare for working parents are just a few examples. As of March 2020, about half of adults said the worry and stress of the pandemic was having a negative impact on their mental health. And for some groups, like parents and young adults, the shares reporting a negative impact were even larger. All of this prompted the two teams at KFF and CNN to run a project that focused solely on mental health, paying some attention to the populations we know have been hardest hit by the pandemic.

WHAT MATTERS: But the pandemic is not a dominant theme in the results. Why is that?

Kirzinger: When we started this project, it largely focused on the specific stresses of the pandemic, but the truth is that for many Americans, the pandemic is now in the background and they are dealing with the normal stressors of the everyday life. That said, the worries and concerns that have arisen during the pandemic have not gone away and so people are having to balance getting back to work and getting their kids to school while dealing with the many mental health issues that have arisen. over the past two years. . I think that while the survey questions may not necessarily focus on the pandemic, the experiences and concerns of the past two years definitely influence how people answered the survey.

WHAT MATTERS: Is there a particular detail or number that surprised you?

Kirzinger: When I started digging into the data, the disproportionate share of young adults who reported negative mental health, anxiety, depression, and difficulty accessing care kept surprising me. I think the most striking data point is that nearly half (47%) of adults under 30 say there was a time in the past year when they thought they might need mental health services or medication, but they haven’t gotten it. This shows that there are still many unmet needs, even when three in 10 young adults say they have received mental health care in the past year. And when we ask them why they didn’t receive the care or medication they thought they needed, the reason most cited by young adults was the cost of that care.

WHAT MATTERS: There is a real divide in the survey between older and younger Americans. How do younger and older Americans view mental health differently?

Kirzinger: I’ve already talked about how young adults report having more difficulty accessing care; but perceptions of mental health are another difference between younger and older adults. Half of young adults report feeling anxious “always” or “often” in the past year (compared to one-third of all adults), one-third describe their mental health or emotional well-being as “only fair” or “poor” (compared to 22% of all adults), and four in 10 say a doctor or other healthcare professional has told them they have a mental health such as depression or anxiety. The good news is that the majority of young adults also report feeling comfortable seeking care for mental health issues and discussing mental health with friends or loved ones.

WHAT MATTERS: I guess we don’t ask the children themselves about their mental health, but there is real concern about the results regarding children’s mental health. Do the results suggest that it’s more than adults expressing a natural concern for young people?

Kirzinger: You’re right, this is a survey of adults in the United States, but it includes a large sample of parents who we ask to report on their children’s experiences. And yes, the majority of parents and non-parents are concerned about how depression, substance use, anxiety, and other mental health issues negatively impact teens in United States. But when we also ask about children’s experiences, parents’ concerns about the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on children and teenagers have been a major theme in many KFF polls over the past two years. Previous surveys we conducted earlier in the pandemic, when many schools were still holding classes, practically suggested that parents whose children attended an online school reported more mental health and behavioral problems in their children than those who attended a school in person. This new survey reveals that around half of parents (47%) say the pandemic has had a negative impact on their child’s mental health, including 17% who say it has had a “major negative impact” and three others in 10 saying it had a “minor impact”. negative impact.” So I think we have evidence that this goes beyond a general level of concern and reflects something that parents see in their children.

WHAT MATTERS: There is near unanimity that a mental health crisis exists, but division on how to deal with it. The country is divided on what role the government should play. There is a division among adults on whether calling 911 would help in a situation. What avenues does the survey suggest we should take to address this crisis?

Kirzinger: A quarter of the public say they think calling 911 during a mental health crisis would “hurt” more than “help” the situation, including three in 10 black adults and four in 10 LGBT adults. , a greater proportion of Hispanic adults and uninsured adults report not knowing who to call in the event of a mental health crisis and also say they would not know where to find mental health services. However, when told about the new 988 number, a large majority of these demographics say they would be likely to call it if they or a loved one were going through a mental health crisis. Unfortunately, most adults say they haven’t heard anything about this new hotline.

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