Guest Viewpoint

An open letter from 19th Ward Ald. Matt O’Shea and Alexa James, LCSW, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)-Chicago.

We’re writing with an urgent plea for your help and with an idea—one so basic that it feels radical in these unsettling times.

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned our lives upside down. We know that traumatic events like this, especially those accompanied by widespread job losses, wreak havoc on our mental wellbeing.

Indeed, if history is our guide, the current recession will lead to a sharp increase in suicides.

The need to prevent that spike and to help our community heal from this trauma is what spurred us to write this letter, in hopes of rallying as many people as possible.

As an alderman, I have long championed robust mental-health care for my constituents, many of whom are first responders. This crisis has made me understand that I need to broaden my focus. This crisis impacts all of us. And, we can take what we’ve learned supporting our hero first responders to help everyone.

And I, as a social worker and member of the mayor’s Recovery Task Force, have seen how this communal trauma affects every neighborhood. We know many people are hurting. Too many don’t know how to get help. And, in a crisis like this, our patchwork mental-health system can barely keep up.

That’s where you come in. This is our plea:

It’s time for the City of Big Shoulders to lean in. It’s time to show that social distancing does not mean emotional distancing. It’s time to step up for our neighbors, this city we love, and in the process, ourselves.

In the midst of this pandemic, we are all mental-health first responders. We are the first to see what’s happening to our children and our parents. We are the first ones there for our spouses and our friends. We may also be the best hope for a neighbor or a local grocery clerk.

We can have an immense impact on the mental wellbeing of others. We can all model the bravery and selflessness typically associated with first responders.

This won’t be easy. You are frustrated. You are experiencing some level of trauma; we all are.

We feel hopeless. However, let that frustration be turned into empathy. When stress and anxiety become overwhelming, experience the healing effect that comes from listening to and helping others.

Science and experience tell us that mental-health maintenance needs to be a priority. While it can be easy to become stuck in this crisis, we urge you to reach out today and act in ways that may seem small but can have a big impact.

Smalls acts of kindness can have a profound impact on the ability of others to manage their anxiety—performing them will make you feel good about yourself and, hopefully, distract you from the frustration you started with. This shared experience reminds us how much connection sustains us.

That’s true because we heal in communities. During a crisis, adrenaline fuels us. When that energy fades, community—human interaction—takes over to sustain us. Community is the series of relationships that we foster on any given day and the watchful web that catches those who stumble.

Don’t underestimate the powerful impact you can have in someone else’s life. Our first responders rise to this challenge each day.

Now, it’s our turn.

In this mental-health crisis, we are allies—we must be. By responding to those in need, we become first responders. A mental-health crisis needs a community to respond, a community of first responders.

We need each other. That is our plea.

Your mental health matters. If you need help, call NAMI-Chicago at (833) 626-4244.