In his State of the Union Address on March 1, 2022, President Biden spoke of the country’s unprecedented mental health crisis among people of all ages. As part of his unity agenda, the President announced a strategy to address this mental health emergency. This announcement came just three months after U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a new Surgeon General’s Advisory providing a series of recommendations to address the nation’s youth mental health crisis. These two declarations highlight a significant public health priority that needs the American people’s immediate attention.  

Mental health affects every aspect of our lives: our relationships with family and friends, how we understand the world, and our daily interactions at work, school, and home. It’s a critical component of our total health — our physical, emotional, psychological, and social well-being, but is often seen as separate and distinct, and is beset by stigma, prejudice, and discrimination. These forces distract from the public health implications — social determinants, prevention, and early identification — surrounding mental health and wellness. The result, even before the start of the pandemic, was that 50 million Americans were experiencing mental illness, and almost half of those individuals were deciding not to seek professional help.   

The COVID-19 pandemic added to these challenges. It disrupted all our lives, affecting school and work, in-person social opportunities, access to health care and social services, and the health of caregivers. Our youth have been particularly impacted as the pandemic has led to increased social isolation, anxiety, and learning loss. More than half of parents express concern over their child’s mental well-being. New reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that more than half of teenage children have experienced emotional abuse, 44% have felt persistent sadness and hopelessness, and 20% have seriously considered suicide.   

These trends are alarming, and efforts are being made across the country to change how we view mental health and wellness. Over the past 16 months, I have had the honor of helping lead one of those efforts as the Gubernatorial appointed Interim Chair of the Illinois Children’s Mental Health Partnership (ICMHP). ICMHP includes a representative of each Illinois child-serving state agency; 25 experts from sectors such as community mental health, children and family advocacy, early childhood, school-based education, health, substance use, violence prevention, and juvenile justice; and eight members of the General Assembly. Our current charge is to create the first Children’s Mental Health Plan in Illinois in 17 years, using a public health approach to mental health and wellness.       

In December 2020, the Partnership began a systematic, comprehensive, interdisciplinary process to create new recommendations, goals, and strategies to ensure that Illinois would continue to prioritize mental health and wellness. From the beginning, the Partnership has used a whole child and family approach to engage more than 800 participants and prioritize equity, diversity, and inclusion. The planning process led to four workgroups spanning the continuum of mental health and wellness — social determinants of health, prevention, early identification, and treatment. These four workgroups, consisting of individuals representing diverse sectors, obtained direct input from over 100 youth and centered their recommendations on the lived experiences of youth and families. 

The Plan is set to be released in May 2022 during Child Mental Health Awareness Week. The Plan will ask the State of Illinois to concentrate on these five important goals: 

  1. Increase public awareness on all issues connected to child mental health and wellness to decrease stigma and promote acceptance 
  2. Improve state coordination to better assess needs, ensure effective spending, and foster innovation 
  3. Create a centralized, public-facing hub to streamline system navigation, resources, and funding for families  
  4. Invest in the full child-serving workforce, including mental health providers, educators, pediatricians, hospitals, and others who work with and support our children and families 
  5. Fund the design, implementation, and evaluation of integrated and responsive system of care strategies

Illinois’s Children’s Mental Health Plan is just one example of an initiative that is working to redefine the meaning of mental health. An incredible amount of work still needs to be done to address our mental health challenges. It is time for all of us to focus on mental health and wellness, striving to overcome stigma, prejudice, and discrimination in the process. We need to prioritize a holistic approach to health, giving mental health the same respect and attention as physical health.

Sameer Vohra is a member of the first cohort of the de Beaumont Foundation’s 40 Under 40 in Public Health. He is a general pediatrician and the Founding Chair of the Department of Population Science and Policy at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine. 

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