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Resources, equitable community investments essential to support mental health and well-being


Had the CRISES Act been signed into law two decades ago, my family, community and I would be less scarred. As a young woman, I struggled with depression, grew up in a family with intergenerational trauma, and lived in a community where the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department responded to conflict and crisis. Our ability to be resilient was possible because of generosity, grace, and love; there was no policy to ensure that community-based responses to local emergencies were funded, coordinated and available. For me, a public health approach to mental well-being necessitates that we address – through practice, policy, and systems change – the multiple threats that impact our ability to feel safe and cared for.

Today, we know that the mental health of our nation – and ourselves, our families, and our communities – is in peril.

In 2020, 1 in 5 adults experienced a mental illness, and 50% of the 26 million adults who received virtual mental health services had a severe mental illness. Mental illness is more prevalent among young adults and adolescents: 1 in 3 young adults have experienced a mental illness and three million adolescents have had serious thoughts of suicide. Despite spending more on mental disorders than all other medical conditions, including for those who are institutionalized and often excluded from estimates, investments in mental well-being remain woefully insufficient.

The unemployment, economic instability, racial discrimination, and stress exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic has been detrimental to our mental health. Latino adults have reported symptoms of depression nearly 60% more frequently than their white counterparts, and while white adults were more likely to report stress and worry about the health of their loved ones, a larger percentage of multiracial, non-Latino adults have reported stress and worry about stigma or discrimination associated with being blamed for spreading COVID-19.

Although there are racial and ethnic differences in the use of mental health services, cost or lack of insurance coverage is often reported by all racial and ethnic groups as the main reason for not using mental health services. Compounding these gaps in access to mental health services is the painful reality that our health providers are not immune from threats to mental well-being either. Public health workers have reported harassment, bullying and threats, and more than half of public health employees have reported at least one symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Because mental health requires more than resilience, resource support and equitable community investments are essential. From climate instability, to economic and housing insecurity, how we respond to mental health threats matters. In Northern California, for example, the Bay Area Regional Health Inequities Initiatives (BARHII) is working with local public health departments to implement equitable recovery strategies that focus on community mental health and healing-centered engagement as one of ten investment priorities. From Detroit to Salt Lake City, local public health department leaders from the Emerging Leaders in Public Health initiative are cultivating resources to address burnout among frontline workers, increase access to mental health services, and establish organizational practices that promote emotional, psychological and social well-being.

Those of us who work in health philanthropy have a responsibility and unique opportunity to promote mental health too. Beyond the grants and program related investments to support community-led efforts that promote mentall well-being, we can streamline processes to reduce the work burden of our grant-funded partners, establish practices to minimize work-related stress, and demonstrate our commitment to the safety and mental well-being of the communities we serve.

To read more commentaries from the Health Team’s National Public Health Week series, check out: