Like physical health, mental health is important throughout the lifespan. It continuously affects how we think, feel, and act. It also plays an important role in our physical and social well-being. Many factors can impact our mental health, including early adverse life experiences, experiences related to chronic medical conditions, biological factors, feelings of loneliness or isolation, and various life stressors (like financial hardship). Mental health conditions are very common with more than half of Americans diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point in their lifetime.  Anxiety disorders, bipolar disorders, and depression are some of the most common.

The last several years have challenged all of us and greatly impacted mental health. The most recent 2021 Arizona Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which reached 1,181 adolescents from 9th to 12th grade, found that 40% of those surveyed felt their mental health was not good during the pandemic, while 36% reported poor mental health in recent times. The survey also indicated that a quarter of adolescents in Arizona have thought about taking their lives in the past 12 months. In addition, nearly 7 out of 10 had at least one Adverse Childhood Experience, and 2 out of 10 had four or more. Poor mental health during the pandemic and suicide consideration was 6 and 18 times more likely in adolescents with four or more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) compared to peers with none. Four in 10 adults reported symptoms consistent with anxiety and depression during the first year of the pandemic. 

As public health professionals worked to combat the pandemic and provide other essential public health functions, many have been dealing with increased stress, anxiety, fear, and other strong emotions. The 2022 Arizona State Health Assessment (SHA) Update reported that over half of state and local governmental public health employees surveyed continue to experience at least one symptom of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Many continued to report their mental health as “fair” or “poor.”

Navigating the pandemic recovery phase includes the consideration of how we move forward with an increased need for mental health support. Improving mental health for both ourselves and our communities requires an all-hands-on deck approach. We must work together to create a stronger, healthier, and more resilient Arizona.

Implementation teams for the Arizona Health Improvement Plan’s Mental Well-being and Pandemic Recovery & Resiliency priorities are bolstering actions aimed at improving community resilience and strengthening mental well-being.  It starts with building a skilled workforce. Both priorities include strategies that provide evidence-based training to help professionals identify mental health conditions and reduce stigma. Frontline staff receive information on suicide prevention, mental health management resources as well as identifying existing mental health and wellness resources. The Arizona ACEs Consortium is collaborating with partners to expand ACE programs and training into schools, communities, and other locations. A workforce that is able to spot the warning signs for cyberbullying, trauma, PTSD, depression/anxiety, and excessive stress in themselves and others ensures we can have a stronger, healthier, and more resilient Arizona.

A critical strategic focus of the Mental Well-being Action Plan is to improve awareness of and address the impact of social isolation and loneliness on health. Numerous studies have shown links between loneliness and social isolation to poor health outcomes, including cardiovascular disease, cognitive decline, hospitalizations and premature death.                  

ADHS launched a Start a Conversation campaign to promote the importance of  social connectedness.  We will be building out the next phase of the campaign over the next year and working with partners to implement new programs targeting caregivers, rural and underserved populations and veterans. 

To help support youth, ADHS is part of a Collaborative Improvement and Innovation Network (COIIN) in a Youth Mental Health Task Force to integrate mental health into our adolescent health initiatives. With creative input from youth from Bring Change 2 Mind, a stigma reduction website was developed targeted primarily at youth providing tips for self-care and starting conversations about mental health with parents; various resources; and listing of therapists, among other resources. A youth stigma reduction campaign was also developed to drive youth to the website.   

ADHS bolstered Youth Mental Health First Aid programming by certifying county teen pregnancy prevention program health educators. They deliver training directly to youth serving organizations in their communities. This 8-hour training gives adults who work with youth the skills they need to reach out and provide initial support to adolescents (ages 12-18) who may be developing a mental health or substance use problem and help connect them to the  appropriate care. Mental Health First Aid is a similar program directed at an adult audience. Find a course or instructor near you

Practicing mindfulness, eating a well-balanced diet, engaging in physical exercise and getting a good night’s rest have been proven to help improve mental health. Finding new tools that boost your mental health are often a click away. Help is always available: 988 is a 3-digit phone number to access the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Counselors are available 24/7 to provide free and confidential emotional support by voice, text, or chat to anyone in suicidal, substance-related or mental health crisis or emotional distress. Whether seeking help for yourself or someone else, 988 counselors can provide you support.

Taking care of ourselves and each other has never been more important.  Being kind and compassionate with ourselves is a good place to start to strengthen our own resilience and that of our community.