By Umair A. Shah, MD, MPH, NACCHO President and Executive Director of Harris County Public Health in Houston, Texas
May is Mental Health Month, a time for local health department (LHD) leaders and staff to bring awareness to mental health issues and help reduce the stigma associated with mental illness. Led by Mental Health America and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), this month provides an important opportunity to reflect on the ways in which local public health agencies can support the mental health of our communities.
Mental health issues affect wide ranges of the populations we serve as LHD leaders and staff. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an estimated 44 million American adults, (nearly one in five adults) experienced some form of mental illness. Mental health disorders can include anxiety; attention deficit hyperactivity; bipolar disorder; depression; disruptive, impulse control, and conduct disorders; obsessive-compulsive disorder; schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders; and trauma- and stressor-related disorders.
Mental health disorders can affect anyone but certain populations are more vulnerable such as veterans, the homeless, people with disabilities, people with chronic conditions, and LGBT individuals. Additionally, people with mental health disorders are more likely than people without mental health disorders to abuse alcohol or other substances. As our nation grapples with an opioid epidemic of immense proportions, we cannot ignore the relationship between mental health and opioid use disorder.
Local Health Department Efforts to Improve Mental Health Care
LHDs work in a variety of different ways to ensure our communities have access to mental health services and prevent suicide. The Marshall County Health Department in rural Illinois won a NACCHO Model Practices Award in 2012 for its efforts to address a lack of mental health services in its jurisdiction. Using NACCHO’s Mobilizing for Action through Planning and Partnerships framework, the health department established a behavioral health task force that was instrumental in obtaining funding and increasing access to mental health services in the county. The task force successfully increased awareness and delivery of several mental health-related programs in the county, obtained funding to offer free mental health first aid training courses for first-responders and law enforcement personnel and to implement suicide prevention curricula in local schools, and developed a mental health resource guide for county residents.
In 2014, Hennepin County Human Services and Public Health in Minneapolis won a Model Practices Award for its development of a drop-in medication management clinic for a group of behavioral health clinic patients with high no-show rates, poor engagement in care, and complex treatment needs. The drop-in clinic provided needs assessment, evaluation and treatment, medication management, prescription services, care coordination, and referrals to ancillary services.
Harris County Public Health (HCPH) is expanding mental and behavioral health components of local chronic disease prevention, disaster response, and epidemiological surveillance. HCPH disseminates information to the public for substance abuse prevention, mental health awareness, and coping after natural disasters. HCPH also liaises with healthcare and mental health care providers throughout Harris County to promote integrated care models and screening for social determinants of health.
HCPH has been very proactive in promoting behavioral health to the community. During the 2017 SuperBowl, we worked alongside partners who hosted an alcohol-free event with athletes and artists. The event was called SoberBowl and was a safe place for families and those in recovery who wanted to partake in the SuperBowl festivities.
To make sure families have access to the right information, our community collaborative launched a new website full of resources and information to prevent underage drinking and prescription drug misuse. In addition, we have also have released several public service announcements promoting safe medicine practices, especially in light of the recent opioid epidemic. In partnership with SAMHSA, we also pushed the “Talk. They Hear You” underage drinking messages in English and Spanish to families.
Three Ways LHDs Can Participate
Whether you work at a small rural health department or a large urban health department, you can take advantage of this month to raise awareness about mental health. Here are three ways LHDs can raise awareness about the importance of mental health this month.
- Help reduce the stigma associated with mental illness. By speaking about the prevalence of mental health disorders and highlighting resources in our communities, we help reduce the stigma associated with mental illness. Communicate with your community members about the importance of mental health and help residents access mental health services in your jurisdiction.
- Strengthen partnerships with local organizations providing mental health services. Whether or not your LHD provides mental and behavioral health services, partnering with other local organizations involved in mental health care will improve the health of your community. Strong partnerships will increase your health department’s ability to link those in need of mental health services to care and help address related public health issues.
- Advocate for policies and resources to support mental health care, prevent suicide, and address opioid use disorders. As public health experts, policymakers depend on us to inform them about the most effective ways to address mental health and related issues such as suicide prevention and opioid misuse disorder. Take advantage of this awareness month to reach out to local, state, and federal policymakers and share ways they can support public health. Not sure where to start? NACCHO’s Advocacy webpage contains policy statements, legislative resources, and contact information for your elected officials.
NACCHO Model Practices Award Winners
- Hennepin County Human Services and Public Health – Drop-In Medication Clinic
- Marshall County Health Department – Public Health Response to Access to Rural Mental Health Services
- Prevention of Firearm-Related Injury and Death Policy Statement
- NACCHO Suicide Prevention Policy Statement
- Blog Post: Mental Health Among People with Disabilities: Local Health Departments Can Promote Awareness on Dual Diagnosis
- Blog Post: The Opioid Epidemic in 2018: Where Do We Go from Here?
- Blog Post: Safe Storage of Firearms Prevents Suicide
- Preventing Suicide: A Toolkit for High Schools
- Psychological First Aid Intervention Toolkit
- Community Action Guide: Supporting Families Impacted by Substance Abuse and Trauma
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – Mental Health Resources
- SAMHSA – Results from the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Mental Health Findings
- NAMI – Mental Health Month
- Mental Health America – Mental Health Month
- Faculty of Public Health – Better Mental Health for All: A Resource for Public Health Professionals