11/07/2014 11:02 am ET Updated Jan 07, 2015

National Dialogue on Mental Health Must Integrate Public Health

In his recent blog on HuffPost, Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, wrote about racial stereotyping in media accounts of violence. He wrote, "very little of the subsequent national conversation mentioned the issue of mental health. Instead, we got the standard character assassination that is so common when African Americans are involved as perpetrators."

To move beyond racial stereotyping the national conversation on mental health must heal the schism between mental health and public health. Unifying the voices of professionals and scientists addressing mental health will help the public and policy makers maintain the focus we need to address these complex problems.

We can no longer think of mental health and physical health in silos: They are inextricably linked. It is well documented that a large number of chronic diseases (including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, asthma, arthritis, epilepsy, and cancer) are influenced by one's mental health. Even injury rates (both intentional and unintentional) are 26 times higher among those with a history of mental health problems than for the general population. Those with mental health problems are twice as more likely to smoke than that general population.

As I stated in a previous blog, the burden of mental health concerns still falls disproportionately on racial and ethnic minorities. I emphasize, once again, that while minorities have lower rates of mental illness compared to whites, African Americans and Hispanic Americans become more likely to suffer from the adverse effects associated with such concerns. Depression among African Americans, as an example, more often goes untreated and tends to be chronic when compared to white Americans.

The national conversation on mental health can move forward by integrating mental health and public health, something called for by the former surgeon general Dr. David Satcher in his first Surgeon General's Report on Mental Health, now celebrating its 15th anniversary. More recently, the Centers for Disease Control has issued a "Public Health Action Plan to Integrate Mental Health Promotion and Mental Illness Prevention." Public health must refocus its effort to collect better mental health data, conduct mental illness prevention research, promote a consistent campaign to educate the public about mental health, and work on integration of our mental health care system to our mainstream health system.

Academia must also do its part by producing the right kind of public health professional who is grounded in public health science and practice, but also fully understands the challenges faced by mental health services, and the policies and programs that support mental health. At The Chicago School, we are building on this federal plan for integration by launching a unique Master of Public Health, emphasizing mental health. We have dedicated our resources to serve the communities in which we live and work. To further advance our mission, we plan to do even more than just train psychologists: We accept the call to action to integrate mental and public health, so that the national dialogue on mental health does not continue to falter.