As knowledge, treatment, and prevention for COVID-19 continue to improve, we are finally beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel; however, it cannot be ignored that most of us have experienced an impact to our mental health from the isolation, uncertainty, and stress we’ve felt as a result of this pandemic. Despite the progress we’ve made, quarantine, physical distancing, grief, death, change, and uncertainty still remain. In fact, the US Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murphy, recently outlined his first priorities will be addressing the most devastating health issues facing our country today: COVID-19, mental health, and Substance Use Disorders.

4 out of every 10 Americans reported noticeable anxiety and depression indicators throughout 2020. Heavy alcohol consumption in adults ages 30-80 also increased by nearly 20%. Women, in particular, displayed the sharpest surge in heavy drinking at an increase of 41%. April is Alcohol Awareness Month, and there is no better time for Americans to have an honest conversation about our relationship to alcohol and substances—and the underlying forces that drive such behavior. It’s not drinking in itself that is unhealthy; but too much drinking. It is the “why” or “what” driving the behavior that is most important to learn and gain awareness. Am I drinking appropriately for fun? Or, am I drinking to treat feelings and emotions?

Similar questions and statistics became glaring four years ago as the unfortunate term, “Deaths of Despair,” was coined to describe the increase in deaths related to suicide, overdoses, and alcohol use. In 2017, the same demographic of adults ages 30-80 represented the most addicted and medicated American society ever–one digitally connected like no other, but personally disconnected like never before. These numbers tell a story of a society that struggles with being uncomfortable, does not know healthy coping mechanisms, and works to avoid their discomfort with instant gratification and distractions. These distractions appear differently in every individual–a couple drinks, a few prescriptions, more hours at work, more food, more social media… more, more, more.

As Americans, we have a long-standing history of coming together in crisis and caring for one another, especially in times of unfathomable calamity and turmoil like this. Coming out of the exhaustingly stressful and anxious period of COVID19, our society will need to begin wholeheartedly battling the pandemic of mental health and substance use disorders. How are we going to view and support each other? Let’s work to model a society that shows compassion for each other and delivers compassion, and kindness to those sick or suffering without fear, stigma, or stereotypes. A society who can turn our country from leading the world in “Deaths of Despair” into a global example of hope, healing, and resiliency.

Compassion is a founding attribute of our country. Compassion is empathy into action. The individuals struggling with mental health conditions or substance misuse need our compassion and support in order to receive the helping hands that are stretched out waiting for them. Crisis does not build character, it reveals it. What will these latest crises reveal about the American character?