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A Community Vision of Mental Health

May 19, 2022, 12:00 AM

Centering the community in making its own decisions, confronting a long legacy of trauma and violence, and honoring genuine emotion are among the pathways to mental health that many residents of Palm Beach County are embracing.

In Palm Beach County, Florida residents are tackling neighborhood challenges together. Teamwork and a commitment to inclusiveness and civic participation helped the county earn an RWJF Culture of Health prize.

Six communities that comprise the Healthier Together place-based initiative are asking local people what they care most about. Their questions sometimes surface surprising answers. Many residents say they want to focus on mental health and that “feeling whole in mind, body, and spirit” is what really matters to them. But the way they think about mental health often differs from the way a clinical provider considers it. “It’s not a traditional definition, it’s their definition,” said Jeanette Gordon, whose Healthier Neighbors Project in Riviera Beach and northern West Palm Beach is all about fostering engagement, empowerment, and balance.

Organizing a multi-generational street cleanup may not at first blush seem deeply connected to mental health, but the Healthier Lake Worth Beach community saw it as a natural fit. “They wanted to create the conditions where their kids could thrive,” explained Pat McNamara, CEO of Palm Health Foundation, which funds Healthier Together. And what could be better for emotional wellbeing than that? Under the umbrella of mental health, Palm Beach County communities are activating other priorities as well, each one identified by those who live there—including gaining access to healthy foods, confronting the root causes of trauma and violence, and creating opportunities for youth.

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What Nurses Can Teach Us About Health Equity

May 5, 2022, 1:00 PM, Posted by Nacole Riccaboni

I talked to a fellow nurse about inequities in healthcare settings, our own experiences with bias, and the importance of acknowledging and confronting the harms associated with structural racism.

Nurses wearing masks.

In Manhattan’s financial district, the average resident can expect to live until the age of 85. In East Harlem, life expectancy is only 76 years. Ten stops on the subway and a nine-year drop. That’s what Jasmine Travers, a nurse and New York University assistant professor, told me when we talked about the importance of digging out the root causes of health disparities.

As Black women in the nursing profession, both of us understand the need to “get real” about structural racism because we’ve seen how it plays out at the patient’s bedside and in our own professional lives. In fact, Jasmine left hands-on nursing to pursue research into the policies, practices, and structures that impede good outcomes. Talking about the realities of racism isn’t easy, but being uncomfortable isn’t an excuse to avoid tough conversations. The goal is not to accuse or shame anyone, but rather to shine light on enduring inequities, the forces that perpetuate them, and the ways we can heal the damage they do.

As an example, Jasmine described differences in how hospital staff sometimes approach pain control. The immediate response to a White patient’s complaint tends to be “let’s see how we can ease the pain.” But patients of color face more scrutiny. Too often, the first question a healthcare provider asks is, “what’s really going on here?”—the assumption being that pill-seeking behavior needs to be ruled out before considering the use of pain meds.

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Good Things Happen When Nurses Lead

May 2, 2022, 11:00 AM, Posted by Najaf Ahmad

A retired nurse CEO says we need nurses in government, on the boards of for-profits, and mentoring the next generation given their powerful role in influencing people, policies, and systems.

Mentor the Next Generation of Nursing illustration.

Maria Gomez has had her finger on the pulse of our healthcare system and the people it serves throughout her storied, 30+ year career running a community health center that serves a low-income, immigrant community in greater Washington, D.C. Maria entered the United States at age 13, started Mary’s Center after becoming a nurse, and helped grow it into a powerhouse serving 60,000 people each year. Mary’s Center helped pioneer an integrated model of healthcare, education and social services to put people on a path to good health, stability and economic independence. In 2012, President Obama presented Maria with the Presidential Citizens Medal. She retired in late 2021. Here, in the second part of a two-part interview, she reflects on the challenges facing our healthcare system, how nurses can continue leading efforts to meet them, and what we can learn from the pandemic.

What are the greatest challenges facing our healthcare system?

Today, it’s all about the numbers—the number of patients you see and the number of minutes it takes. Because that’s how you get paid. To transform lives, we need to change how we address patient needs. Providers can’t do it all in 15 minutes. Some are so overwhelmed by the numerous demands on them that they’ve grown numb to what their patients are feeling. Too many smart, incredibly passionate people who devote themselves to healthcare have become disheartened, burned out, and are even leaving the workforce. This is the most discouraged I’ve seen providers in my career.

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Understanding the Link Between Affordable Housing and Structural Racism

Apr 21, 2022, 10:00 AM, Posted by Rev. Eric Dobson

Creating inclusive communities requires more than fair housing laws. We need enforcement to end residential segregation and the disinvestment that shortchanges so many communities of color.

Understanding the Link Between Affordable Housing and Structural Racism

To this day, I still choke up when I remember the moment, two decades ago, that changed my life. As part of the Martin Luther King Day of Service, I had volunteered to help feed some folks who were homeless. At the end of the afternoon, I turned to one of the women who ran the sponsoring program, and said, “That was great, I look forward to doing this again next year.”

She paused, looked directly at me, and said quietly, “We do this every week.”

In those words, I suddenly heard a calling. My Dad was a church pastor and I had always expected to follow his path. But now I wondered, “Am I going to preach about this, or am I going to actually do it?” And so I signed up to work among people who were living mostly on the streets. Some struggled with mental illness or substance use, others had been forced from family homes because of their sexual identities. All were poor and most were Black or Brown. I learned to listen, not judge, and to think more broadly about how poverty and race intersect.

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This Policy Tool Can Advance–Or Impede–Racial and Health Equity

Apr 14, 2022, 1:00 PM, Posted by Kate Belanger, Matt Pierce

There is great urgency to ensure local governments are able to enact policies that protect and enhance the health of their communities.

Illustration for Health Equity blog

On a host of issues ranging from commercial tobacco regulation to public health authority, paid sick time to advancing the health of children and families, a policy tool known as preemption can impede local decision-making. Preemption is when a higher level of government, such as a state legislature, restricts the authority of a lower level of government, such as a city council. Depending on how it is used, preemption can either support or undermine efforts to advance health equity.

In one example of the latter, we know that health and economic well-being are intertwined, which is why raising the minimum wage has been used across the United States to advance health equity for workers in low-wage industries. In 2016, the majority-Black city council of Birmingham, Ala., passed an ordinance raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour. But the new minimum wage never took effect because the majority-White state legislature responded with a law preventing municipalities from setting their own minimum wages. It effectively nullified Birmingham’s ordinance.

Eight years later, Alabama still follows the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. At that wage, someone working 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, earns about $15,080. Birmingham decision-makers recognized in 2016 that $7.25 an hour is not a living wage. Yet to this day the state still prevents the local government from acting.

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Why We Need Healthy School Meals for All

Apr 11, 2022, 12:45 PM, Posted by Jamie Bussel

Healthy School Meals for All offers students and schools the stability and support they need as they continue adapting to pandemic-driven change amidst ongoing challenges. Now is not the time to let this policy expire.

Student being served lunch in cafeteria

Families around the country, mine included, are feeling fortunate to have our kids back in school after a turbulent, unpredictable couple of years. Students, teachers, and school officials were forced to navigate unexpected changes.  For most, the ongoing shifts from virtual to in-person learning were stressful and added to many other pandemic-induced hardships. Through it all, school districts quickly spearheaded innovative approaches to ensure they could continue to serve much-relied-upon school meals to students. They implemented “Grab and Go” models allowing parents to pick up meals in school parking lots or other community hubs; loading up school buses with meals and dropping them off at stops along neighborhood routes; and delivering meals directly to students’ homes.

Schools were able to offer this continuity and flexibility because when the Covid-19 pandemic forced nationwide school closures—and hunger and food insecurity spiked—Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and CARES Act in 2020. 

Provisions in these laws provided the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) with authority and funding to implement waivers that permit schools nationwide to serve meals to all students free of charge (also known as universal school meals). The measures also allowed schools flexibility to help ensure that meals are provided safely during a public health emergency. That includes distributing meals to families outside of the school setting and temporarily serving meals that meet the less stringent nutrition standards of the Summer Food Service Program, which require fewer fruits and vegetables than USDA’s current nutrition standards for school lunch.

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How Can We Use Local Data to Address the Impacts of Structural Racism on Community Health?

Apr 4, 2022, 10:45 AM, Posted by George Hobor, Oktawia Wojcik

Thirty-five local non-profits will be awarded up to $40K to work with local data to dismantle structural racism via a new funding opportunity.

Editor's note: This funding opportunity is now closed. 

Columbus, Ohio redlining map. A redlining map from 1936. In communities throughout the nation, there is strong correlation between redlined places and worse health outcomes.

The COVID-19 pandemic reinforced how place matters for health. Some communities have the conditions needed to help their residents thrive—like safe streets and parks, safe and affordable housing, and access to healthy foods. But too many communities—particularly places where people of color and those with low incomes live—have lacked these resources. This lack of resources is a result of the legacies of structural racism, such as redlining that shaped the socio-economic trajectories of communities, and modern-day racist practices, like systemic disinvestment from communities of color.

To inform efforts to improve community conditions shaped by structural racism, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) has released a call for proposals (CFP). In order to best represent the voices of those most impacted by societal injustices, we aim to meaningfully engage community organizations. Up to 35 local non-profit organizations will be awarded up to $40,000 over nine months.

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Relatives Raising Children: Why is it so Difficult?

Mar 24, 2022, 11:00 AM, Posted by Jennie Day-Burget

Child-welfare systems and policies shouldn't create so many unjust barriers for children growing up in nontraditional families.

Families face challenges illustration.

Life is harder than it has to be for families where grandparents or other relatives step up to care for children when their parents can't. Our family-supportive policies and systems were designed to serve “traditional families,” with services aimed at “parents” and foster families, not relatives who step up. These families face unnecessary barriers to getting the support children need to thrive. This is especially true among Black and American Indian families, who make up a disproportionate share of the 2.6 million families in the United States where children are growing up without parents in the home. The pandemic has made things worse. COVID-19 has robbed thousands of children of their parents and sent them into the care of relatives.

What happened to the Brown family of Baton Rouge, La., helps to tell the story of grandfamilies, also known as kinship families, which form when children are separated from parents through life events like death, illness, incarceration, or deportation. After a horrific onslaught of gun violence killed four members of their family, Robert and Claudia Brown took custody of three grandsons. They fought for 12 years to adopt the boys.

The Browns struggled through trauma, grief, and loss. They scrambled to pay lawyers while supporting three growing boys. They blew through retirement savings. They didn’t know about services or support that could have bolstered their mental health and financial security.

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How Can We Prioritize Equity in Public Health?

Mar 10, 2022, 12:01 AM, Posted by Maisha Simmons, Sallie George

RWJF leads the design and development of an independent public health institute in New Jersey.

Young woman takes blood pressure of a woman at a table.

We are proud to live in one of the most racially and ethnically diverse states in the nation. Our home state of New Jersey is also a national leader in areas such as expanding health care coverage, enacting paid family leave, and maintaining low smoking rates.                                                       

Unfortunately, however, these bright spots are offset by glaring disparities with roots in our nation's long history of racism that persists to this day. For example, a Black woman in New Jersey is seven times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than a White woman and Black babies are more than three times more likely than White babies to die before their first birthday.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed and worsened these inequities, especially along racial/ethnic lines.  

In addition to the role played by social determinants of health, a major contributor to these disparities is a state public health system strained for decades by lack of funding and insufficient coordination across health and related sectors. Experts agree the system lacks the capacity to simultaneously achieve its core missions while equitably responding to and managing public health emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Uprooting Racism to Advance Health Equity

Jan 4, 2022, 11:00 AM, Posted by Najaf Ahmad

Can we break free from a history of racism that has taken a brutal toll on health? These trailblazers offer hope through their efforts to advance racial justice and health equity.

Race, Health and Equity

In 1966 our nation’s great civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., proclaimed that of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and inhuman. All these years later, this remains painfully true.

Study after study documents racism's brutal impact on health. Compared to White women, Black women are 3 to 4 times more likely to die in pregnancy, childbirth, or within a year after giving birth; Indigenous women face that prospect 2 to 3 times more often than Whites. Black and Latino adults disproportionately report being treated unfairly in healthcare settings because of their race or ethnicity and Blacks experience adverse patient safety events more frequently, even in the same hospital and with comparable insurance coverage. Even the consequences of climate change do their greatest damage to people of color, who are consistently exposed to higher levels of air pollution, live in hotter neighborhoods, and face greater food insecurity as agricultural patterns shift.

The impact of structural racism—the system in which our nation’s policies, institutional practices and cultural representation perpetuate racial inequity—became glaringly more visible during the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial reckoning that followed the anguishing murder of George Floyd. In an important step to advance racial equity and justice, many states and cities across the nation have declared racism a public health crisis.

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