This piece was originally published on Thriveglobal.com.
The burden of poor mental health is all around us. In the U.S., one in five adults experienced mental illness in 2018 — nearly 48 million people. About 18 million people experienced a major depressive episode. In 2017, over 47,000 Americans died by suicide. Clearly, mental illness is not just a challenge for individuals, but for populations. Yet we tend to think of mental health as a personal matter, something to be faced alone or with a therapist, rather than as a matter of public health. This needs to change. Public health seeks to improve health by improving the conditions in our society that shape it. This World Mental Health Day, it is time we apply a public health approach to mental health.
Our health is a product of the context in which we live. Whether or not we can be healthy depends on the air we breathe, the water we drink, the quality of our neighborhoods, our education and family income, the prejudice we face or do not face, and countless other factors that have little to do with doctors and medicines. Income and race, for example, are linked to asthma risk; income and geography are tied to life expectancy. The influence of these conditions is not limited to our physical well-being — it also shapes our mental health. For example, income inequality has been linked with higher risk of depression, and laws that allow discrimination based on LGBT status can cause mental distress among sexual minority adults.