In a recent health symposium convened by the Duke University Policy and Organizational Management Program (POMP), esteemed leaders in the fields of health and social services, hailing from diverse corners of the world, congregated at the Duke University School of Medicine to delve into the realm of mental well-being.
This symposium, aptly named “Revitalizing Emotional Resilience and Mental Health,” showcased illuminating presentations by notable figures such as Kody Kinsley, the North Carolina Secretary of Health and Human Services; Ling-Fong Lee, Senior Counselor to the Minister of Taiwan’s Ministry of Health and Welfare; Jilma Meneses, Secretary of the Washington Department of Social and Health Services; and Chris Jones, Commissioner of the North Dakota Department of Health & Human Services.
Each of these luminaries shared their distinctive regional challenges and groundbreaking approaches aimed at addressing the intricate issue of mental health. These challenges encompassed a scarcity of mental health practitioners, surging rates of depression, anxiety, and opioid misuse, and the imperative shift toward a more community-centric approach to healthcare. However, a resounding theme that resonated throughout the event was the necessity of meeting individuals where they are.
David Johnson, a deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, who skillfully moderated the proceedings, encapsulated this sentiment, stating, “The solution resides in proximity to the voices we serve. Reaching the heart of our communities is essential.”
POMP, affiliated with the Duke University Center for International and Global Studies, masterminded this august gathering on August 28th, delving into policies affecting a gamut of healthcare issues, ranging from infectious diseases to long-term care. However, it was the panel discussion on mental health that took center stage, as it addresses a concern increasingly recognized as the potential next global pandemic.
Among the experts present, there was an unequivocal emphasis on collective action, harnessing digital tools to bridge existing gaps, and cultivating an environment where each individual feels both heard and supported.
One prevailing message that emerged from these discussions was the imperative shift of mental health from the periphery of healthcare to its very core. As Kinsley remarked, “Mental health has long been seen as a secondary issue. Addressing mental health concerns directly correlates with a decrease in costs associated with other chronic diseases.”
North Carolina, with its underfunded mental health system in dire need of reform, is now poised for transformative change. Kinsley unveiled ambitious plans, focusing on crisis prevention and fortifying the mental health infrastructure within schools and the criminal justice system. The state has also recently expanded its collaboration with Duke Health to bolster a psychiatric access line that aids healthcare providers and educators in addressing behavioral health challenges. Nevertheless, the pressing need remains to elevate mental health from a secluded tertiary concern to the forefront of public health agendas. Kinsley astutely opined, “We really need a public health response to behavioral health.”
Jones steered the conversation towards broader health considerations, emphasizing the interconnectedness of behavioral, economic, and physical health. He urged investment in robust community-driven support systems, revealing that North Dakota had significantly reduced its number of institutionalized children. “Out of sight, out of mind is never the solution,” he emphasized.
While addressing mental health challenges is formidable, another crisis in the form of opioid use disorder (OUD), particularly the use of fentanyl, is unfolding, as highlighted by Meneses. She advocated for a national campaign to address its profound impact on communities, with a particular focus on the American Indian and Alaska Native community. Recent data revealed that among AIAN Medicaid beneficiaries aged 18-64, 15% were diagnosed with OUD—a rate more than double the overall prevalence of substance use disorders among Medicaid beneficiaries. This alarming trend is also associated with higher rates of homelessness and arrests. Nevertheless, Meneses saw opportunity in the face of challenge, emphasizing the importance of supporting resilience and recovery through collaboration and alignment among various agencies within Washington.
The collective wisdom of the leaders in this symposium underscored the imperative of a community-integrated approach to mental health care, not merely as a preference but as an essential avenue for progress.
In Taiwan, innovation is afoot as community mental health centers collaborate with educational institutions. This collaboration extends beyond current students, recognizing the unique challenges faced by recent graduates or those who have discontinued their education. Taiwan has introduced a pioneering support program for young adults, leveraging technology to extend its reach. A simple scan of a QR code on posters bearing the message ‘Let us listen to you’ instantly guides individuals to nearby mental health centers and clinics. As Senior Counselor Ling-Fong Lee expressed, “Every government globally shares a common responsibility—to empower its citizens to face life’s challenges with increased confidence and resilience.” Taiwan is proud to be part of this global endeavor.