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“We must bring the issue of mental illness out into the sunlight, out of the shadow, out of the closet, deal with it, treat people, have centers where people can get the necessary help.”

— John Lewis

Congressman John Lewis was a man ahead of his time in many ways, and his recognition that mental health should be brought into our national dialogue is just one example. In the United States, the topic of mental health does not rank high among typical dinner conversations. If the family seated at the table happens to be African American or Hispanic, it’s even less likely.

Unfortunately, for too many Americans, mental health issues like depression, anxiety, addiction and even suicidal ideation are dismissed as choices, viewed as weaknesses and shrouded in misinformation and fear. The truth is, mental health is just as critical to a person’s well-being and life expectancy as every other discipline and, in fact, has a profound impact on not just state of mind but how one feels physically. An estimated 17.3 million adults in the United States have suffered from at least one major depressive episode (NIH), with more than a third not receiving any treatment.

The data is startling but is even more stark for people of color. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMSA), the COVID-19 pandemic has spotlighted racial and ethnic disparities in access to behavioral health care. While their rates of mental health disorders may not significantly differ from the general population, African Americans and Latinos have substantially lower access to mental health and substance-use treatment services. In addition, African Americans are more likely to be exposed to the social determinants of health that can give rise to mental health conditions like anxiety and depression.

As we continue to endure the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the issue of mental health must be brought out of the shadows. Fear of the unknown impacts of the pandemic, combined with the necessary but difficult isolation of social distancing mean those already suffering will face greater difficulties and others at risk may be struggling, and doing so without their normal support networks.

The World Health Organization describes health not as the absence of disease, but this concept of your overall health, meaning both your physical and your mental overall well-being. Health does not just mean you are not sick, and a silver lining of the pandemic may mean ongoing inequities of mental illness are being brought into the public spotlight.

We are seeing more reports and coverage about how COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted people of color, and how much of that can be attributed to deep-seeded disparities in chronic illnesses. More and more people are recognizing that this is a problem that must be addressed, and organizations like ours are finding innovative ways to meet the need.

At CVS Health, we recognize that we must speak out about the need to address mental health, but also use our strengths to bring resources to the table for anyone who may need them. We’ve made Aetna Resources for Living available to anyone who needs basic support for everyday needs, as well as real-time emotional and mental health resources.

Through our Time for Care initiative, we’re encouraging all Americans to continue to stay in care and continue to take the time to nurture their health, address new conditions and treat ongoing issues. Mental health is no different.

Now, more than ever we must work together to bring mental health into the spotlight and work together to help all Americans get the resources they need to treat their whole health.


Dr. Garth Graham, MD, MPH, is the Vice President, Community Health & Chief Community Health Officer at CVS Health.