The COVID-19 pandemic has had a detrimental effect on mental health and well-being. Job losses, separation from friends and family, and the deaths of more than 550,000 people have contributed to high rates of depression, anxiety and suicide. As part of National Public Health Week, we’re emphasizing the need to build better bridges to uplifting mental health and wellness today.

Lisa Carlson, MPH, MCHES, a former past APHA president and longtime mental health advocate, talks about how we can take care of ourselves and one another during this national crisis.

Suicidal thoughts and behaviors are up 25% among adolescents. How can the nation address this public health crisis?
The increase in suicide is a systemic problem and needs to be addressed at a system level. Challenges like poverty and racism directly contribute to the despair of youth, and the rate of suicide has increased among Black youth in particular. This is compounded by a lack of access to mental health care. Two smiling women jogging

In low-income neighborhoods, several schools may be sharing the services of one mental health counselor. In addition, development of interventions specific for minority youth is sorely needed. These problems require a societal-level acknowledgement of the critical importance of mental health, and with this, the resources to address it.

How can we uplift mental health and wellness as we start to come out of the pandemic? 
As a nation, we need to acknowledge that mental health is equal in importance to physical health. The perception persists that the mind and body are separate, rather than interrelated. Health is not one-dimensional. Mental health and physical health are inextricable, and the same factors are at play in each for positive and negative outcomes.

How can we continue to draw the connection between mental health and public health in the post-pandemic era?
The wording of this question suggests there is a distinction between mental health and public health. Mental health is public health.

Passion about public health should include passion about mental health, because the challenges are interconnected: Mental illness, poverty, violence and suicide, unhealthy environments and substance abuse — these are all linked.

When we work to address social determinants of health, we address factors that have an impact not only on physical health but also on mental health. And when we make improvements in these areas, we improve both physical and mental health. We can include mental health in all public health policies. 

Every time we talk about public health, we need to mention mental health. When we talk about COVID-19, we can acknowledge its impact on mental health. The most important thing we can do — as professionals and in our communities — is talk about it.

What do you do to support your own mental health and wellness, especially in this time of social distancing and isolation? 
One of the most important things I do for my own mental health is walk outside every morning around sunrise. To me, trees are part of the public health team, and I find getting out among them to be critical for my physical and mental health. Nature need not be far away — stepping outside into the trees and breeze and sun in our own backyards is healing.

I’ve also tried to support the mental wellness of those I love. My wife and I have talked to our parents nearly every day since the beginning of the pandemic more than a year ago. Although we rarely have big news to report when we speak so often, it’s become a lovely ritual for all of us, and I like to think it supports our sense of connection and mental health all around. 

This interview was edited and condensed.

For more information on mental health, visit the NPHW website. Help relieve stress with free NPHW Zumba and yoga classes this weekend.

Watch and share: NPHW message from Lisa Carlson


(Photo by Itakayuki, courtesy iStockphoto)