Dra. Shama Faheem

By La Prensa Staff

May is Mental Health Awareness Month—and the chief medical officer of the Detroit-Wayne Integrated Health Network (DWIHN) is calling the post-pandemic observance perhaps the most crucial period in modern mental health.

COVID-19 caused a tremendous amount of mental health problems in the community—for young and old alike, as changes in the family dynamic, economic and other stressors caused anxiety, depression, and other mental crisis.

At the same time, the pandemic raised acute awareness of those same mental health issues and removed much of the stigma associated with seeking help. That double-edged sword must continue to lead to increased awareness and treatment, according to Dr. Shama Faheem, DWIHN chief medical officer.

“We have so much information about how the pandemic has affected the mental health of adults and youth, how it has led to an increase in the rates of depression and anxiety, rates of suicidal thoughts and even a rise in the visits to emergency departments for mental health reasons,” she said. “We want to make sure we are doing our best to raise awareness and develop a better system that allows people to address the increasing challenges that we are facing.”

Dr. Faheem stated a number of objective studies were done during the pandemic citing better public understanding about the root causes of mental illness and a reduction in the stigma associated with depression. But statistics still show that about 40 percent of people with anxiety or depression still are not seeking help because of the stigma attached to mental health issues.

“We still have a lot more work to do,” she said.

Cultural issues remain a big part of the equation for seeking treatment. Dr. Faheem stated Latinos still have a tendency to keep mental health issues within the family dynamic. Thus, they remain underserved in seeking treatment. Barriers such as language and transportation don’t help those situations.

“But then they face disparities in both access to and the quality of treatment,” she said. “We have information that indicates that more than half of Hispanic youth ages 18 to 25 with serious mental illness may actually not receive treatment because of this. This inequality puts these communities at a higher risk for more persistent and severe forms of mental health. Getting access to mental health treatment in a timely manner is key. Even talking about it can be considered taboo.”

DWIHN offers a 24/7 crisis hotline at 1-800-241-4949 for those seeking help. There is also a mental health collaborative set up where people can call or text 313-488-HOPE where they can receive up to 12 therapy sessions by phone, tablet, or computer.

There are nearly 500 Latino youth up to age 17 receiving services through DWIHN. Nearly two-thirds have emotional disturbances, while the other third are living with intellectual and developmental disabilities. 80 percent of those are receiving services through Detroit. All DWIHN providers offer bilingual services to children and families.

One of the system’s key providers, Southwest Counseling Solutions, have specific programs for Hispanic children, youth, and families, including clinical services, juvenile justice services, along with leadership and life skills training. Some of those programs help youth with job development, career readiness, life skills, financial literacy, and early childhood mental health.

The pandemic led to a lot of mental health services being offered through virtual meetings, which expanded access to mental health services overall. Telehealth services increased, because providers were able to overcome some of the barriers to seeking mental health treatment.

“You have to balance the pros and cons, benefits and risks,” said Dr. Faheem. “We learned various aspects of telehealth that are going to stay with us. You’re able to receive services in the comfort of your home with less commute time. But you cannot overlook the fact that certain things have to happen face to face. If someone is in crisis and you want to do an evaluation or you’re working with very young children, you have to observe so many things, small cues.”

The pandemic taught mental health providers a lot about how social determinants of health affect access to treatment services, especially where disparities exist. Income, access to food, transportation barriers, family dynamic, and other factors all play a big part in access to services.

“I think it’s a good thing that it’s raised awareness and people are studying it. We have evidence now that suggests how we can narrow those gaps,” she said. “We learned a lot from this pandemic. I have seen a lot more work, focus, articles, awareness, and advocacy around the post-pandemic. I know people started to realize and work on it before the pandemic, but it surfaced so acutely during the pandemic that people are now more acutely aware post-pandemic.”

Dr. Faheem pointed out that public health systems like hers now have plans to address mental health at the individual, community, and organization levels as a result of all the pandemic research that was done in a relatively short period of time. But there is a real fear that as life gets back to normal, awareness and advocacy on mental health may fall off to some degree.

“We as community mental health agencies have a lot of work to do in terms of raising awareness for youth, parents, and families, work collaboratively with schools, health care (providers),” she said. “They’ve had a lot on their plate the last two years, but there’s a lot more work to do to sustain that awareness. When it comes to prevention, health care plays a significant role.”

Dr. Faheem stated that will fall on the shoulders of pediatricians and primary care doctors to help raise awareness about mental health and encouraging patients to play to their strengths, and work with families to promote their resiliency.

Parents also will need to communicate more effectively with their teens and monitor their activities as a prevention measure. Dr. Faheem also stated parents need to do a better job of listening without judgment and not be accusatory. Children who feel connected to school and family do much better than others who may be showing signs of self-harm or even suicide.

“Right now with all the awareness and studies and advocacy, we see a lot more movement, but I think we as a community have pressure to maintain that and learn from all the lessons and sustain that awareness and continue to work,” she said.