If we think mental health is important, it’s time to start acting like it.

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Content warning: This article contains mention of suicide and suicide ideation.

This past weekend, the UNC-Chapel Hill community was devastated by news of a suicide and attempted suicide on campus, following two other reported suicides in UNC police logs in September.

As a May 2020 graduate, my mind was admittedly not very focused on this tragedy over the weekend; I was celebrating my class’s long-overdue commencement, some 75 weeks after actually graduating from UNC.

But as someone who has lost a loved one to suicide and contemplated it before myself, of course the news was yet devastating. In the middle of festivities and celebration, the loss of life and tremendous pain signified by any suicide was disorienting. Over the weekend, though for the most part I tried to stay of of Twitter, I saw several helpful posts reminding people that it’s OK to disengage from triggering news and to grieve privately.

I agree.

Still, I find myself thinking of all the things I wish I’d heard or read when I was in high school, wrecked by mental health struggles I thought I couldn’t talk about and would never find relief from, but eventually did. I think about the disproportionate number of LGBTQ and Black and brown youth attempting or thinking about suicide, and the ways in which mental health is still nowhere near as prioritized as physical health, even as suicide is the second leading cause of death for teens aged 15 to 19, according to 2019 mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

So as we encourage those struggling to take breaks from this news, we must talk more openly overall about suicide and suicide prevention while also making tangible strides to fund mental health resources. Because such efforts work and help save lives.

In 2018, the Chatham Health Alliance deemed “access to comprehensive health services,” which included mental and physical health, as the No. 1 issue afecting Chatham County’s overall public health in its Chatham County Community Assessment, the News + Record previously reported.

“Many of the same barriers impede access to physical and mental health care, including services not being covered by insurance, lack of insurance, prohibitive costs, transportation, scheduling, and stigma,” the CCCA stated at the time. “Healthcare, including access, cost, and quality, was listed as the number one issue afecting community health and seventh leading issue afecting quality of life for Chatham residents in the 2018 CCCS.”

Data from the 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey indicate 34% of Chatham students surveyed reported feeling “sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks;” 11% reported attempting suicide in the last 12 months. Those numbers, concerning on their own, also reflected a large disparity between Hispanic/Latinx and white students. Thirty seven percent of Hispanic students reported feeling sad or hopeless compared to 32% of white students (despite comprising less of the total student population), and 16% of Hispanic students reported having attempted suicide compared to 8% of white students.

In the last several years, Chatham County Schools has consistently stated its commitment to expanding its mental health services. This year, the district increased its mental health services for in-school therapy with Renaissance Wellness Services — a Pittsboro clinic it’s partnered with since 2017 and which currently serves about 150 CCS students (about 2% of its enrollment). The district also hired two additional counselors and three social workers, supported by federal COVID-19 relief funding.

In my reporting, local therapists and mental health advocates have told me this is a good start. Still, it’s difcult to overcome many decades of insufcient services with just one change or increase in services.

In October 2018, the Kennedy-Hatcher Center for Mental Health Equity gave North Carolina an “F” grade on whether or not its state statutes treat mental health and physical health the same, even though North Carolinian adults and youth have mental illnesses at higher rates than the national average: 1 in 5 for adults, 1 in 10 for youth compared to 1 in 6 and 1 in 12, respectively, in the United States.

That’s why it can’t be enough to just talk more about mental health and suicide prevention. Treatment must also be more accessible — through programs such as in-school therapy, which is funded by the school and removes transportation barriers to therapy; expanded Medicaid coverage, which N.C. Republicans might be considering for the first time in years, due to a potential $1.7 billion in federal funds for the state; and therapy options which meaningfully address a person’s culture, race and sexuality.

Mental health professionals and educators alike have also said they’re worried about the impact of the pandemic on the well-being of Chatham youth.

During my reporting on CCS’s expanded mental health services, Renaissance owner and Clinical Director Karen Barbee told me that the services ofered at CCS have increased every year since forming a partnership in 2017. In light of the pandemic, she doesn’t expect that to change this year.

“One of the big things that we’re preparing for currently is just an uptick in referrals,” Barbee told me recently. “I do believe that we are going to be inundated with referrals. And it’s not a bad thing — I think that it could really be an amazing thing. Because as a whole, we need to be utilizing mental health services more.”

In light of the tragic events that took place at UNC this weekend — and 130 times daily in the U.S., according to data from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention — it’s time we talk more about mental health and suicide prevention For the sake of people like me, who for a long time didn’t know that feeling empty and hopeless wasn’t normal and that it does get better, we must treat a person’s mental health as equally important as their physical health.

Not only that, but we must then create accessible options for people to receive the care they need for as long as they need it. Lives quite literally depend on it.

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, you can receive confidential and free services 24/7 by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can find more local resources in the accompanying breakout box.

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at hannah@ chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan

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