Taking a holistic approach toward mental health by listening to your community.

crop psychologist supporting patient during counseling indoors

Photo by SHVETS production on Pexel.

By Jane Chai.

Each year, a multitude of awareness campaigns revolving around mental health attempts to improve services and remove taboos. However, even though this area is currently receiving mainstream attention there are still many gaps in our care systems.

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, the demand for mental health care exceeds the availability of mental health providers—the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration estimates that 149 million Americans live in areas with a shortage of mental health professionals, and 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. Despite this, there is good news: 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

In the past, numerous studies have linked mental health to social and economic conditions (e.g., socioeconomic status, physical environment, and basic needs) as well as physiological factors. Our experiences over the past two years during the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects have 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.

This multifaceted “system” currently operates in silos, with organizations often lacking standard metrics to reach a shared understanding of the problem and 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 practical tool for collaboration and shared action across the entire ecosystem.

Using a standard metric to incorporate mental health into community needs creates mutual understanding. It also fosters 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 most significant risk for poor mental health and is part of the SocioNeeds Index® Suite. 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. Mental health professionals can use this index to align their mental healthcare programs with 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 broad set of partners to analyze shared metrics will inspire necessary conversations because each partner gains valuable insights into how food access, social services, and environmental justice contribute to overall well-being.

The importance of community voices

Ensuring the 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 is vital 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 experts, 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 (HCI) provides an end-to-end solution for community health that links health and social determinants of health with technology and expertise. Conduent’s 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 provides expert guidance for assessing community needs, developing strategies, and implementing evaluation and monitoring processes. Contact Conduent Healthy Communities Institute at communityhealth@conduent.com.

About 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.