Wichita Journalism Collaborative to focus on mental health topics, including stigma and access to care

After a year of navigating the disruptions fostered by the COVID-19 pandemic, the spring of 2021 promises to be the start of a cautious reopening.

But mental health experts say the wounds of the past year could remain with us for quite some time. 

The Wichita Journalism Collaborative is asking Sedgwick County residents to complete a brief survey that will help us understand our collective experiences. 

Many of us have suffered staggering loss of life and livelihood over the past year. Nearly 5,000 families in Kansas have lost a loved one to COVID-19. Even more have lost jobs and financial stability in the ensuing recession.

Mental health experts say the implications of prolonged isolation won’t disappear with the virus. In fact, the mental health strain brought on and exacerbated by the pandemic will likely linger for years.

Isolated from family and friends, residents in long-term care facilities went nearly a year without outside visitors. Children lost the normalcy of going to school. Many lost the communal celebration of milestones, such as graduations and weddings, and others were deprived of traditional funerals, where they would have grieved with family and friends. We have suffered loss, and that loss took a toll.

Mental health experts say the implications of prolonged isolation won’t disappear with the virus. In fact, the mental health strain brought on and exacerbated by the pandemic will likely linger for years. But this shared experience of physical isolation seems to have helped more people open up about what’s going on inside their heads. Many of us have struggled, and we’ve been more willing to admit that because we know we’re not alone.

As we re-emerge from life in a pandemic and begin healing from our collective loss, how do we keep people talking openly about mental health? How do we build off that momentum to eradicate the stigma that has long surrounded mental illness and break down the barriers to accessible mental health care?

Over the next few months, the Wichita Journalism Collaborative will explore the social acceptability of mental health care, access to treatment and the challenge of affordability. But to do our work well, we’ll need the help of readers like you.

The Wichita Journalism Collaborative is a coalition of local newsrooms and community institutions that launched this past spring, just as the pandemic began interrupting daily life. Since then, the Collaborative has been focused on maximizing coverage of COVID-19’s impact on the community. But we also have an emphasis on a very specific type of coverage called Solutions Journalism, which focuses on covering the responses to social problems. That can be particularly helpful with a taboo topic such as mental health, where the problem can seem overwhelming and intractable.

Unlike the virus, there’s no vaccine available for treating the mental health challenges exacerbated by the pandemic. Americans’ assessment of their own mental health is that it “is worse than it has been at any point in the last two decades,” according to Gallup, and both adults and high school students are increasingly concerned about their own mental health. Wichita even reported an increase in suicides compared to the previous year, although preliminary data from  the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show suicides nationwide declining by about 6% in 2020.

The Collaborative endeavors to get beyond those headlines by exploring how Sedgwick County residents and organizations are coping with the mental health burdens of the pandemic and how they are renewing the community’s social fabric. 

You can help by taking our short survey designed to help us understand more about how your social connections have been affected by the pandemic and what questions and concerns you have about mental health and the pandemic.

The survey can be completed anonymously, but you’ll be given the option to provide your contact information so that a reporter may contact you. Nothing you submit will be disclosed without your consent.

This is a time of hope and optimism as we emerge from the worst of the pandemic, but there’s no denying that there will still be much to grapple with for months and likely years to come. But digging deeply into the topic of renewing our social fabric, the Collaborative hopes to demonstrate the power of news and information to shine a light on what’s necessary to help us heal and reconnect after a year driven apart.