Mental Health in the Public Health Sphere

Public health in the 21st century has placed a clear focus on healthy living, giving consideration to such individually personal things as diet, exercise, smoking cessation, and maternal and infant health. Growing evidence, however, shows that incorporating mental health into our nation’s public health agenda also has wide-reaching benefits for individuals and the communities in which they live.

About 26 percent of all Americans over age 18 suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder in any given year. Further, evidence shows that some 46 percent of Americans will suffer form of mental illness at some point throughout their lifetime. Dealing with unrecognized or otherwise unaddressed mental illness is estimated to cost the United States $150 billion annually. Much of this goes to housing the mentally ill in prisons and processing them through the criminal justice system on a revolving basis rather than addressing the issues that lead to antisocial behavior.

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By the late 1990s, evidence showed that mental disorders were among the leading causes of diminished human productivity and impaired social functioning. It was discovered that mental disorders contributed as much to disability as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, and even surpassed all cancers and HIV together. In addition, five out of the ten leading causes of disability across the globe were mental health problems. The integration of mental health into our nation’s public health system has since taken center stage.

The Integration of Mental Health Care into the Nation’s Public Health System

The Surgeon General’s Office released its first report on mental health in 1999, which detailed the integration of mental health into the nation’s public health system. The report went on to say that implementing the diagnosis and treatment of mental health care can reduce its prevalence and its adverse effect on other health conditions. The Surgeon General’s report also called for the surveillance, research, and promotion of mental health in public health.

Today, public health strategies for integrating mental healthcare with chronic disease prevention include:

  • Surveillance: Includes supporting the collaboration of public health and mental health agencies and organizations
  • Epidemiology: Includes supporting research for mental health, including antecedents and risk factors for mental illness
  • Prevention research: Includes incorporating mental health and mental illness factors into broader public health promotion and prevention programs
  • Communication: Includes developing educational programs with appropriate cultural, linguistic, and developmental characteristics
  • Program integration: Includes supporting the integration of traditional public health, mental health promotion, and mental illness health services at the local and state levels
  • Policy integration: Includes developing policies at all levels and for all audiences


Mental Health Careers within the Sphere of Public Health

Mental health professionals in the public health sector are responsible for ensuring the integration of mental health services in communities. Their work involves mainstreaming the promotion of positive mental health systems into schools and health and social service programs so as to overcome the stigma long associated with mental health care.

Mental health professionals in public health are responsible for promoting mental health and mental illness prevention into an integrated public health model, which recognizes that the physical and mental well-being of individuals and communities are vital to ensuring a healthier society.

An overview of some of the most well-known public health careers related to mental health include:

Health and Wellness Manager/Director

Health and wellness managers or directors, in a public health setting, are responsible for planning and implementing mental and behavioral health programs and overseeing budgetary and staff issues associated with those programs.

The programs developed by health and wellness managers are designed to find sustainable solutions to mental and physical health problems.

Some of the job responsibilities of health and wellness managers include:

  • Designing and implementing policies and procedures for community health and wellness programs
  • Overseeing effective marketing strategies to ensure the best outcomes for community health and wellness programs
  • Managing a team of marketers and counselors who are responsible for ensuring the implementation of community health and wellness programs
  • Creating new initiatives tailored to specific populations in a community
  • Working as a liaison between partner organizations and businesses

Health Program Coordinators

Health program coordinators are public health professionals who are responsible for overseeing social workers and mental health counselors who provide services for target populations. These specialists also oversee the coordination of resources and partner organizations to ensure that mental health programs are operational and effective.

Health program coordinators monitor the effectiveness of behavioral and mental health programs in a public health setting and serve as liaisons to other behavioral health organizations and services. Further, much of their work involves serving as an advocate for public policies that benefit at-risk populations to ensure access to mental and behavioral health services and programs.

Health program coordinators work to ensure:

  • The delivery of mental health and substance abuse outpatient treatment services
  • That programs are culturally competent
  • The integration of mental and behavioral services with primary healthcare
  • That mental and behavioral health care is team-based and client-centered
  • Evidence-based care and best practices result in good client outcomes
  • Interagency collaborations
  • Funding and regulatory compliance

Their administrative duties include:

  • Recruiting, supervising, training, and evaluating personnel
  • Working with other managers to implement and evaluate goals, responsibilities, policies, and procedures related to mental and behavioral health services and programs
  • Overseeing the operational needs of the public health facility
  • Monitoring financial reporting for assigned programs

Behavioral Research Scientists

Behavioral research scientists research health and wellness in individuals and whole populations to predict, prevent, and manage illness. Their work helps people and populations change their behavior and lifestyle, and understand the treatments and therapies available to them. It is the goal of behavioral research scientists to understand how and why individuals behave, as well as how they interact with others and with their environment.

Behavioral research scientists conduct research that advances the understanding of mental and behavioral disorders so as to promote mental health in the greater population.

These public health scientists use a number of methods for measuring the needs of a population and how different approaches affect these populations, such as:

  • Real-time data: Studying populations during the course of their daily lives using real-time data
  • Community-based participatory research: Partnering with community members to better understand community needs, as well as language and cultural barriers that could block public health prevention measures
  • Sociocultural approaches: Involves an evidence-based understanding of behavioral, social, and cultural factors, including existing stigmas and other factors that motivate behavior
  • Genome scans: Teaming with geneticists to understand the relationship between genes and lifestyle, both of which contribute to our overall health
  • Computer models: Using computer software to simulate how interventions affect individuals and groups


Graduate Degree Programs in Mental Health for Public Health Professionals

The combination of mental health and public health brings together researchers and specialists across a variety of disciplines, all of whom have expertise in understanding, preventing, and treating mental health and substance abuse disorders.


Typical undergraduate degrees for individuals interested in mental health in the public health context are usually in the health sciences and the social and behavioral sciences. Therefore, students pursuing this type of work often choose to major in the allied health sciences, nursing, social work, psychology, social work, anthropology, sociology, and the like.

Because the field of mental health usually requires advanced education, graduate degrees are commonplace.

Schools of public health are increasingly focusing their Master of Public Health (MPH) degrees on mental health. An MPH in Mental/Behavioral Health focuses on population-based research of mental health and substance abuse. Students in this type of MPH program examine community and family issues, evaluate systems performance and outcomes of public mental health and substance abuse services, as well as issues related to children’s mental health, aging and mental health, and the planning, evaluation, and accountability of mental health and substance abuse services.

Core coursework in an MPH in Mental/Behavioral Health includes:

  • Case management in community mental health
  • Family and community violence in public health
  • Cultural competency in mental health
  • Evaluation in mental health
  • Grant writing in mental health
  • Substance abuse, crime, and the justice system
  • Mental health informatics
  • Measurement issues in behavioral health

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