Michelle Tucker, President and CEO of United Way of Greater St. Louis

Michelle Tucker

Turbulent times during the past year have placed a pronounced spotlight on the importance of mental health and related healthcare crises. Sunday, October 10, 2021, is World Mental Health Day, and an important time to highlight the importance of mental health for our community.  

With so many unique challenges facing Black, Indigenous, and People of Color [BIPOC] communities, including disproportionate impacts from the pandemic, racial tensions across the nation, and ongoing traumas that, for many, are carried from childhood through adulthood, it is imperative that our community has available and appropriate levels of support to help address these growing needs.  Wrap-around approaches and partnerships are needed to maximize efforts as we aim to address these issues more fully.     

According to Mental Health America, 16% (4.8 million) of Black and African American people reported having a mental illness, and 22.4% of those (1.1 million) reported a serious mental illness over the past year.  Stigma and limited resources are often cited as prevalent reasons why Black people don’t seek necessary support, including access to culturally competent care. 

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health has noted the harsh impact of poverty on individuals’ mental wellbeing. Research has found that Black adults who live below the poverty line are more than twice as likely to report being in serious psychological distress compared to those with greater financial stability. 

As we look closely at United Way’s Basic Living Measure and our recent Community Needs Assessment findings in the St. Louis region, we find that in typical economic times, 43% of all households do not have the monthly income to meet their basic needs (things like rent, utilities, food, medical expenses, transportation.) This falls disproportionately on Black people: In our region, 35% of Black people live in poverty, compared to 13.9% of white people.

Partnering with local nonprofits, we see firsthand how the burdens of poverty combine to form a crushing weight. This includes the inability to afford the basics needed to survive, such as food and a safe place to stay. There are tough choices, like paying for a critical medication or filling up the car’s gas tank to get to work. There’s the inability to stay ahead of it all, let alone to make investments to gain stability and prosperity, like post-secondary education.  And for Black people, this couples with systemic inequities that limit day-to-day lives and long-term potential. 

To maintain solid mental health, people need a strong foundation consisting of support systems and basic needs. The unique stresses of COVID-19 have further revealed gaps and clear opportunities for our region to better resource our efforts toward recovery and growth through a wide breadth of programs and services to address the varied challenges our neighbors face. Our community’s nonprofit safety net serves as a strong resource to help lift the burdens of poverty and assist on the journey to being physically and mentally well.  This safety net helps people build or rebuild a solid foundation to stay healthy, access education, meet basic needs and become financially stable. 

Our safety net supports are in place to help ensure that when people need food, shelter, care, counseling or respite, they know who to call to find help with everyday needs and during times of crisis. Our collective efforts provide individuals with the necessary tools to build brighter futures, such as obtaining a job with a livable wage and providing equitable economic opportunity.

Our community cannot thrive unless its people are thriving. By investing in our community’s nonprofit safety net, we can continue helping to address surrounding and underlying factors standing in the way of success for so many around us, including those struggling through mental health challenges.  

If you or someone you know needs mental health resources, please dial 2-1-1 or visit 211helps.org to find local organizations and programs that can help.

Michelle Tucker is president and CEO of United Way of Greater St. Louis

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