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Conference: Spikes in mental health and substance abuse caseloads signal more trouble

An emerging crisis coming out of the global pandemic? And it will be particularly glaring in the African-American community?

Thurston Smith

That is what Thurston Smith, the convener of a recent virtual conference, emphasized about a projected mark increase in caseloads dealing with substance abuse and mental health issues.

“We are seeing spikes for individuals having both mental health and substance abuse issues,” said Smith, who serves as an administrative and program surveyor for CARF International, an independent, nonprofit accreditor of health and human services programs. 

“The effects will likely be more pronounced in the Black community since we have traditionally distrusted the healthcare system, especially with mental health.”

A recent retiree from the U.S. Veterans’ Health Administration, Smith has 25-plus years of experience in criminal and juvenile programming, mental health and children and youth services.

Smith, an adjunct professor at Union University, serves as an administrative and program surveyor for CARF International, an independent, nonprofit accreditor of health and human services programs.

With Smith and other professionals asserting that the nation’s status regarding mental illness and addiction has worsened since the onset of COVID-19, the Biden Administration has committed to funneling nearly $2.5 billion in funding to states and territories. Smith said more funding is needed to address an existing racial disparity that likely will grow.

“There is already a huge difference in how communities of colors and the White community relates to mental health and  addition,” he said. “We do not seek professional health so readily. Therefore, we remain underserved. Also, we can’t forget the fact that many African-Americans have little or no health insurance. So, the economic disparity becomes important.

Wary of a rise in suicide and suicide attempts, Smith said, “Federal funding could make a huge difference.”

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will direct $1.65 billion in Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant funding and $825 million in Community Mental Health Services Block Grant funding to states and territories.

In a release earlier this month, Acting Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use Tom Coderre said, “We know multiple stressors during the pandemic – isolation, sickness, grief, job loss, food instability and loss of routines – have devastated many Americans and presented unprecedented challenges for behavioral health providers across the nation. …

“During this time of increased urgency, we want to assure them that funding is in place to help states and territories provide pathways to prevention, intervention, treatment and recovery services, especially for underserved populations.” 

Recent data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirm a rise in fatal overdoses during the pandemic. Help-line operators in various parts of the country have reported a dramatic rise of growing anxiety, depression and trauma.

The larger backdrop is that the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated economic crisis have been especially devastating for Black and Latino communities, who are experiencing a disproportionate number of COVID-19 infections and deaths, as well as higher-than-average unemployment rates.


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