If you've always had employer healthcare, you have no idea how vital the ACA is
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I got married and started working in my early 20s, and for more than two decades I always had employer-provided health insurance. When the Affordable Care Act (ACA, aka "Obamacare")was passed, I didn't give it a whole lot of thought. I was glad it helped others, but I just assumed my husband or I would always be employed and wouldn't need it.

Then, last summer, we found ourselves in an unexpected scenario. I was working as a freelance writer with regular contract work and my husband left his job to manage our short-term rentals and do part-time contracting work. We both had incomes, but for the first time, no employer-provided insurance. His previous employer offered COBRA coverage, of course, but it was crazy expensive. It made far more sense to go straight to the ACA Marketplace, since that's what we'd have done once COBRA ran out anyway.

The process of getting our ACA healthcare plan set up was a nightmare, but I'm so very thankful for it.

Let me start by saying I live in a state that is friendly to the ACA and that adopted and implemented the Medicaid expansion. I am also a college-educated and a native English speaker with plenty of adult paperwork experience. But the process of getting set up on my state's marketplace was the most confusing, frustrating experience I've ever had signing up for anything, ever.


Most of the problems stemmed from proving our income, which was confusing to report and hard to show accurately. I lost track of how many letters I got saying they needed more or different information. When I'd call the help number, the person on the other end always told me something different. It took nearly two months of back and forth, with dozens upon dozens of letters, phone calls, and website chats, to finally get my family set up with a healthcare plan.

During the two months, we weren't covered under any insurance, I was terrified of something happening. We are a very health-conscious family and we take good care of ourselves, but what if one of us broke a bone? What if one of us had a freak medical event or needed an emergency surgery? What if we got into a car accident and had to be hospitalized? The list of possible scenarios, minor to major, constantly ran through my mind.

During the time we weren't covered, I was keenly aware of three things: 1) All it would take was one big accident or diagnosis to wipe us out financially, 2) People in other developed nations never feel this fear, and 3) Prior to the ACA, far more Americans felt this fear all the time.

Once we were finally able to work out the necessary paperwork, it was fine. Our income at the time meant our premiums were low, and our coverage was comparable to what we had with my husband's employer. I ended up getting hired on full-time with benefits a few months later, so our experience with Obamacare was relatively short-lived. But I can't imagine the financial stress of trying to afford health insurance or worrying about paying for healthcare out of pocket without insurance—fears that millions of Americans lived with pre-ACA.

And we didn't even have any pre-existing conditions that would have kept us from being able to get insurance prior to the ACA. Adding that factor in drives home how important that legislation truly is.

At the same time, as thankful as I am that we had an affordable healthcare option, I couldn't help thinking about friends I have who live in other countries who never have to worry about any of this stuff. No complicated paperwork or bureaucracy to deal with. No waiting for bills to arrive in the mail after a doctor's appointment to see what you owe beyond your co-pay. No calling the insurance company to figure out why something that seems like it should have been covered wasn't covered.

The amount of of time, energy, agony, and stress Americans have to put into managing healthcare is absurd when compared to other highly developed nations, and even most less developed ones. We're so accustomed to this garbage, I don't think most people recognize that it doesn't have to be like this.

The ACA was a step in the right direction and a necessary lifeboat for those who previously couldn't get or couldn't afford to get health insurance. But it's not universal healthcare, which is quite frankly the bare minimum of what a society should expect from its government. The fact that the idea has somehow been spun into something radical or impossible when basically every other developed country has figured out how to do it, we spend more on healthcare than anyone else per capita already, and our health outcomes trail so badly behind other developed nations is completely baffling.

My experience with the ACA drove home to me why it's a vital piece of legislation to protect, but also highlighted the desperate need for universal healthcare. It's far past time for us to take that next step.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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