What can communities do to come together for mental health?

May 26, 2022

Mental Health Awareness Month 

Even before the rise of COVID-19, millions of Americans were experiencing the silent pandemic of poor mental health. Today, nearly 20% of Americans have a mental illness, half of whom are unable to undergo treatment due to being uninsured. 

With the current state of our nation’s mental health, celebrating Mental Health Awareness month has never been more timely. And this year’s theme of “Together for Mental Health,” brings much needed attention to the vital role that mental health plays in building stronger communities. To learn more about what communities can do to be together for mental health, we connected with Sue Polis, director of health and wellness at the National League of Cities.

According to Polis, COVID-19 has only exacerbated existing trends of mental illness, substance use disorders and depths of despair. “Contributing factors such as stress, isolation, uncertainty and trauma affect each of us in different ways and by association, the collective toll on individual and community resilience to overcome challenges is significantly weakened,” Polis said. 

Nonetheless, Polis called this pressing time in our nation an opportune moment for a transformation in mental health. 

“The existing systems have been further stretched and frayed and the times call for bold leadership to ensure the necessary care is available to those who need treatment, resources and services to overcome mental health issues,” Polis explained. 

There are a number of successful approaches communities can take to improve mental health outcomes: 

“What is needed is a holistic approach across systems that consider the needs of children, teens, adults, and families, including grandparents suffering with isolation,” Polis said.

Polis explained that the first step to this holistic approach requires leadership from local elected officials to ensure open, honest, non-judgmental dialogue in communities. “Creating a community conversation that identifies and leverages community assets is an important initial step that can be built upon and expanded,” Polis said. 

A recent article written by Polis and her colleague, Stephanie Martinez-Ruckman, MPA, also recommended that community leaders continue to move upstream and support systems-based approaches when working to improve community mental health. They encouraged ‘connecting the dots’ and thinking critically about who is struggling, how they can be supported and what systems must align to meet needs.

While local leadership is core to improving mental health outcomes, Polis said that a lot of this work should be done within our most immediate communities: our homes. “Start at home to create a non-judgmental environment and example for children, family, and friends that sets the tone for how to begin to destigmatize mental health conditions and to foster a supportive dialogue,” Polis said. 

To learn more, visit this resource hub created by the National League of Cities, Prevention Institute and the University of California, San Francisco. And don’t forget to keep up with all the great mental health work our Forsyth County project team is doing in Georgia.