Paul Gionfriddo says U.S. mental health crisis "like a second wave" to COVID-19 pandemic

Mental Health America President and CEO Paul Gionfriddo discusses the mental health crisis in the U.S. fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Video Transcript

JOHN DICKERSON: The coronavirus pandemic has fueled a mental health crisis in the United States. And we go now to Paul Gionfriddo. He is the president and CEO of Mental Health America. He joins us from Middleton, Connecticut. Good morning.

PAUL GIONFRIDDO: Good morning.

JOHN DICKERSON: I want to-- today, Mental Health America will release survey data that has never been collected in this way before. Can you explain to us why this survey data is so important?

PAUL GIONFRIDDO: Yeah, and on a rainy day here in Connecticut, I hate to be the one dampening the optimistic tone of this show so far. But we don't gather mental health data, mental health impact data, in real time. We never really have in the country. And for the most part, we've had to wait a year or two after a crisis has occurred to try to assess the mental health effect.

We at Mental Health America, though, have been gathering in real time mental health screening data over the course of the last several years. And the report today focuses on 750,000 help seekers who took a mental health screening with Mental Health America this last year during the course of the pandemic can give us a real-time understanding about how the pandemic's affected them.

JOHN DICKERSON: And why is it so important to have a real-time view? And how different is that from normally what we are able to do to collect data on those who are facing mental health challenges?

PAUL GIONFRIDDO: Yeah, if you want to wait for two or three years to figure out what happened before you begin to develop policies, practices, and programs to address those crises, then you don't need real-time data. But if you really want to get acting locally, state, and federally as quickly as you can to address mental health needs or any other needs, you really have to be looking at them in real time.

JOHN DICKERSON: And you know, in your opening remarks, you talked about a difference between the kind of happy days are here again and the important, unseen in some cases, struggles people have with mental health. But that in a way has been the story of this entire pandemic. There has been the big story about hospitals with patients suffering from COVID-19, but underneath it has been a serious and growing series of challenges for people with mental health.

So can you-- or serious mental health challenges. Can you just help us understand the landscape of what, over the last year and a half, we've been through as a country and what the data tells us about the challenges on the mental health front that we've been facing?

PAUL GIONFRIDDO: Yeah, sure. The mental health wave of this pandemic has been like a second wave to the physical health wave of the pandemic. And what we've seen is dramatically increasing numbers of people, particularly young people, 11 to 17-year-olds, who have been taking mental health screens and have been experiencing mental health problems.

One data point, for example, is that more than a third of people across all age groups who come seeking help to Mental Health America have said they're experiencing frequent thoughts of suicide or self-harm more than half the days of the week. That's one third of a health-seeking population. It's more than one half among our kids.

JOHN DICKERSON: And has the-- while-- while it's been a second wave and maybe not gotten as much attention, has-- do you think that because this has been a pandemic that everybody has experienced, and many people have experienced a mental health component of it, that we as a country are-- with more-- that we recognize mental health challenges to our lives in a way we would not have before?

PAUL GIONFRIDDO: Yeah, I think we're recognizing them more because half of us would have had a diagonalizable mental health condition, most typically depression or anxiety, over the course of the last year. Whether or not we're going to do something about that is really the question. It's easy to say that we're now getting more attention, and we are.

Policy makers, public officials, community leaders are all focusing more than ever before on the mental health side of this pandemic. But what we're hoping to do with the report that we released today with Lundbeck is to try to take this to the state and local level and give state and local leaders an opportunity to do something with this information for our kids, for our families, and for our communities.

JOHN DICKERSON: And you mentioned do something quickly instead of waiting for the time to lag in which you can't make-- move quickly. Is there something about technology and the screening that you've been talking about that actually across the board or in the future will help create programs that assess mental health in real time so that we can get at this instead of having people suffer in silence?

PAUL GIONFRIDDO: Yeah, think about this. We've got 15,000 people each and every day coming and taking a mental health screening at Mental Health America's website, 15,000 people a day telling us what they need and giving us an opportunity to figure out how the trauma is affecting them, how depression is affecting them, what their suicidal thinking is, even areas-- serious areas like psychosis.

And so the key thing is to be able to take advantage of what people are telling us to develop, a system of care services and supports that actually answers the needs of people. And not just addresses the needs as identified by advocates like me, or service providers who have been out there from the beginning, because we need to rebuild this mental health delivery system if we're going to support everybody, including our kids, all the way up to people in my age group.

JOHN DICKERSON: You said that-- you wrote recently that kids are returning to school broken. What did you mean by that?

PAUL GIONFRIDDO: Yeah, well, think about this. Before the pandemic, even before the pandemic, only about one child in every 30 who would have been by NIH definition in need of mental health services by the time they were 18 were being identified for special education purposes to get those services even though they were critical to their education. Those kids are coming back to school still without services.

But in addition to them, so are the rest of our students. The children who have been at home for the last year, the children who've had their lives ripped from them, the lives that they knew, are coming-- coming back. And in addition to that, our teachers and staff need some support as well. So when we say they're coming back broken, it's not that we can't do something about it. All kids need mental health services. And those kids with severe issues need support as do their teachers. But the truth is they're not getting it yet.

JOHN DICKERSON: Well, and hopefully after this discussion, they will get more of it. Paul Gionfriddo, thank you so much for being with us.