Time to Take a Holistic Approach Toward Mental Health

Each May, during Mental Health Awareness Month, we turn our attention to raising awareness about mental health. This is an area receiving mainstream attention as recent events have laid bare the many gaps in our systems of care and as more people need behavioral health services.

In March of this year, the Household Pulse Survey conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics and the Census Bureau found that 27% of Americans experienced anxiety or depression. That’s more than double the 11% found in surveys conducted in 2019.  

Exacerbating the situation, demand for mental health care exceeds the availability of mental health providers. The U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration estimates 149 million Americans live in areas where there’s a shortage of mental health professionals, and that an additional 7,428 mental health providers are needed to fill the gaps.

Though the nation’s needs are acute, solving the mental health provider shortage will take time. There is good news, however. A more holistic view of mental health can help us consider other ways of addressing community needs with existing resources.

Improving insights through a holistic perspective

Studies like this have shown that mental health is as much tied to social and economic conditions (e.g., socioeconomic status, physical environment, and basic needs) as it is to physiological factors. Our experiences over the past two years during the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftereffects have certainly substantiated this. They point to the need to address conditions many describe as the social determinants of mental health.  

Acknowledging the social determinants of mental health broadens our view of the health and mental health systems beyond clinical services. We can improve mental health in our communities by engaging resources such as housing services, food pantries, community-based organizations, and the justice system — all of which are components of a broader, more holistic system of whole-person wellness.

Currently, this multifaceted “system” operates in silos, with organizations often lacking common metrics to reach a shared understanding of the problem and the goal. While looking at indicators meaningful to a particular sector within the system can help identify areas for action, recent research shows that validated indices that combine indicators into a composite score can be a pragmatic tool for collaboration and shared action across the entire ecosystem.

Using a common metric to understand mental health against the backdrop of community needs creates mutual understanding and fosters both a shared vision and informed action for improved mental health in our communities.

For example, this map shows Conduent’s Mental Health Index, which ranks communities at greatest risk for poor mental health and is part of the SocioNeeds Index® Suite available within the HCI Platform. The index summarizes multiple socioeconomic factors, such as access to healthcare and economic conditions, into one composite score for easier identification of high-need areas by zip code, census tract, or county. With its validation against self-reported poor mental health, this index can be used by mental health systems across the United States to align their efforts and share a common understanding of their community’s needs.

Using a tool like the Mental Health Index, partners in the mental health system can see where investments in prevention and early intervention programs can make the most impact. In addition, bringing together a broader set of partners to look at shared metrics around mental health will inspire important and necessary conversations — as each partner gains valuable insights about how food access, social services, and environmental justice contribute to overall well-being.

The importance of community voices

Ensuring inclusion of community voices is essential to mental health improvement efforts. Even the best data cannot speak to the lived experiences of individuals who reside, work, and play in each community. Gathering insights through focus groups, interviews or community surveys are key in helping us prioritize areas for improvement and identify viable strategies for short and long-term outcomes.

With a more holistic view of mental health informed by validated analytics and fueled by community expertise, we have the tools for a mental health system that can work together to address the social determinants of health and improve whole-person health in all communities.

 

About Healthy Communities Institute

Conduent Healthy Communities Institute provides an end-to-end solution for community health that links health and social determinants of health with technology and expertise. The HCI platform brings stakeholders together with a centralized dashboard of more than 150 health, social, and economic indicators, high value analytics, and evidence-based practices at the user’s fingertips. HCI’s Consulting Services team provide expert guidance for assessing community needs, developing strategies, and implementing evaluation and monitoring processes. Contact Conduent Healthy Communities Institute at communityhealth@conduent.com.

 

About the Author

Jane Chai

Jane Chai, MPH is a community health expert with Conduent Healthy Communities Institute. She has been a leader in the field of public health and community health planning for more than 20 years at various organizations in Southern California.

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