May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and the COVID-19 pandemic has brought this subject into sharp focus for millions of Americans. As a licensed mental health provider focused on treating PTSD and trauma, I have seen the long-term effects trauma, stress, and abuse can have on mental health and overall well-being.

We are experiencing an unprecedented mental health crisis on a broader level due to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a study from the University of Chicago Medical Center, women experienced increased mental health-related issues early in the pandemic-a rise that may be linked to the socioeconomic inequities women already face. Factors like food insecurity, interpersonal violence, and housing/job instability have led to “alarmingly high rates” of mental health problems among women.

Mental illness can be invisible to the untrained eye. Far too often, these conditions are left undiagnosed and untreated because there may not be any immediate or easily recognizable symptoms. Even though the science behind mental illness is constantly evolving, much of the general population sees this as a black and white issue – sane or insane – when it is, in fact, an incredibly broad spectrum of factors. This gross misunderstanding – or ignorance – of such a complex issue prevents us from effectively engaging with those struggling with mental health conditions, which has led to devastating consequences.

This view extends to law enforcement who misinterpret or dismiss erratic behavior as a criminal activity instead of as a sign of mental distress. Instead of receiving the treatment they need, they are handcuffed, incarcerated, or killed. This “criminalization” of the mentally ill has disproportionately impacted communities of color. In 44 states, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center, “a jail or prison holds more mentally ill individuals than the largest remaining state psychiatric hospital.” While it isn’t always possible to prevent people with mental illness from encountering law enforcement, cities and towns across the country are taking innovative and collaborative approaches to improve these interactions and training of law enforcement.

In order to combat this mental health crisis, we need to support comprehensive and trauma-informed mental health programs like the ones outlined in the American Rescue Plan that will increase funding for school-based mental health professionals, mental health care block grants, community-based behavioral health clinics and integrating mental health and addiction treatment into primary care settings, schools, and homes.

A part of our mission is to help change how society addresses the needs of those who suffer from trauma, injustice, abuse, and health issues. This month let’s make sure to support the mental health services, programs, and legislation that will change the discourse and make mental healthcare accessible for all.