Oct 15 2012
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Speaking to the Next Generation of Mental Health Professionals

Jane Lowe / RWJF Jane Lowe, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Idea Gallery is a recurring editorial series on NewPublicHealth in which guest authors provide their perspective on issues affecting public health. In this Idea Gallery, Jane Isaacs Lowe, Team Director for the Vulnerable Populations Portfolio at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, provided her perspective on the critical impact of public policies on the mental health of urban populations.

Recently I attended and spoke at the Social Determinants of Urban Mental Health conference hosted by the Adler School of Professional Psychology. Lynn Todman, the Executive Director of Adler’s Institute on Social Exclusion and the conference’s organizer, has been doing groundbreaking work on the link between public policies and the mental health of urban communities, including the Institute’s Mental Health Impact Assessment, which was developed in part through support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

It’s been exciting to see the field of health impact assessments grow so rapidly. But, of course, physical health is not the only outcome that matters; equally important is our mental health and its integral connection to physical health, especially for the most vulnerable among us. This is reflected in many of the organizations and models in which we’ve invested and which we’re helping to scale for greater impact. You’ll see it, for instance, in a video we just released on Child First, a psychotherapeutic home-visiting program that works with families with very young children who are showing signs of severe developmental, emotional, and behavioral problems. Child First partners with providers all across the community who touch these families’ lives — including doctors, day care providers, teachers, and social workers. If a provider sees a problem, she makes a referral to Child First, which then arranges a comprehensive assessment and home visit with a team of trained specialists, including a masters-level mental health clinician. That team works on the relationship between the child and parent or caregiver and on environmental factors, such as depression, substance use, domestic violence, food insecurity or homelessness that are detrimental to the child and family.

Ultimately, the goal is to foster strong, stable, nurturing relationships between parents and children and also create a safer and healthier overall environment for the child. In so doing, Child First effectively helps to buffer the developing brains of these young children from the damage caused by repeated exposure to toxic stress, and sets the families on a course toward stability and better health.

As Lynn Todman explains it, effective interventions for addressing the social determinants’ impact on mental health exist along a continuum — from trying to “fix” the individual within the clinical setting to structural reforms that create a social environment that will lead to better mental health outcomes. This is demonstrated in the Child First model, which goes beyond the clinical setting to engage individuals and institutions from across the community united by a common goal. The Adler School wants their students to be able to operate along that continuum, and to understand that, to improve outcomes, change will need to happen outside of the clinical setting, in the context of people’s lives and where they live, learn, work and play. This also must include the realm of policy change. Being able to contribute to this goal was well worth my time.

The other speakers at the conference reflected this belief in the need for interventions along a continuum and which engage individuals and institutions from multiple sectors. Lynn Todman’s background is as an urban planner, which is inherently a multi-disciplinary role. As an urban planner, she needed to understand housing, transportation, social services delivery, fiscal policy, and more. And she needed to be able to apply a lens that allowed her to see the connections between all of these seemingly different issues. It’s worth noting that it’s a lens through which Risa Lavizzo-Mourey is also looking in her recent chapter, “Why Health, Poverty, and Community Development Are Inseparable,” in the book, Investing in What Works for America's Communities. She makes a forceful case that, “community development and health must be partners in planning and building communities.”

We’ve pulled together some of the highlights from the conference, including resources that were shared by speakers. I hope you’ll take a look and, more importantly, put them to use in your own work.

>>Catch up on highlights from the Social Determinants of Urban Mental Health conference.

Tags: At-risk and vulnerable people, Behavioral/mental health, Health disparities, Idea Gallery, Mental Health, Public Health , Public health, Vulnerable Populations