University of Sourthern California


Mental Health and Public Health

A therapist leads a group session at a medical center.

In many parts of the world, mental illness has long been considered a taboo topic, one unworthy of public discussion or acknowledgement. In recent decades, however, health care specialists around the globe have begun to shine the spotlight on mental illness and its wide-ranging impact on overall health. The coronavirus pandemic has further brightened this spotlight, as the fear and stress generated by the virus and its impact have made the need to acknowledge the connection between mental health and public health more crucial than ever.

The Impact of COVID-19 on Mental Health

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recognizes depression as a critical public health issue that’s been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The CDC reports that, between August 2020 and February 2021 — a period marked by lockdowns and a dramatic wintertime upswing in COVID-19-related cases and deaths — the percentage of adults exhibiting symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder rose from 36.4% to 41.5%.

This increased reporting of depression seems poised to persist in a post-pandemic world. A report released by Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) states that 21.8% of adults — slightly more than 1 in 5 — reported symptoms consistent with depression between September 29, 2021, and October 11, 2021. This represents a dramatic increase from pre-pandemic data the CDC gathered in the first half of 2019, when 6.6% of adults reported symptoms of depression..

Depression is much more than simply feeling sad or irritable. It has a negative effect on a person’s productivity and earning power, which can cause absenteeism, unemployment and lower income — elements that can have a direct negative impact on quality of life.

Depression and World Health Day

For public health professionals, one of the biggest challenges related to depression is providing access to services. In an attempt to address this growing problem and reach the communities that need assistance the most, the CDC and local public health organizations support monitoring communities for symptoms and effects of depression.

Improving access to mental health care services was one of the key tenets of the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) World Health Day 2021 (“Building a Fairer, Healthier World”), which was designed to acknowledge the extent to which COVID-19 exposed inequalities in health care access, including access to mental health care services. The organization also used the event to reaffirm its commitment to working with public health partners to ensure everyone the world over can realize their right to be in good health.

Anxiety and Public Health

Depression is linked with a higher risk for anxiety and many other mental health issues.

As the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports, mental health illnesses such as anxiety, depression and mood disorders together are among the most common conditions impacting individual health. These mental illnesses, which have increased during the pandemic, have a negative impact on the life span and productivity of the average person. However, public health organizations like SAMHSA are leading initiatives to provide better knowledge of and treatment for anxiety and other mental health issues, which include the creation of resources designed to help professionals and the general public mitigate the pandemic’s effect on mental health.

One of the key challenges that these initiatives hope to address involves improved access to mental health care across socioeconomic strata. Research has already shown that people who live in parts of the nation that have higher incomes also tend to have better mental health. This indicates that communities benefit greatly from access to high-quality, science-based health care services. Initiatives such as the SAMHSA-funded National Mental Health and Substance Use Policy Laboratory will continue to provide public health professionals with opportunities to study the effects of anxiety and other mental illnesses and to test innovative solutions.

Suicide Prevention on a Community Level

Many mental illnesses can lead to an increased chance of suicide. With more than 700,000 deaths from suicide each year and countless more attempts, this is a growing problem. According to the WHO, suicide is the second most common cause of death in teenagers and young adults age 15 to 29.

Suicide especially affects citizens of low- and middle-income nations, where, the WHO reports, 77% of worldwide suicides in 2019 occurred. .

Recent research by the WHO and numerous smaller public health organizations has begun to provide details about some of the groups at highest risk of suicide, including refugees, members of the LGBTQ community and people with Indigenous ancestry.

Many experts also have concerns about suicides resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, particuluarly its aftermath. According to a report issued by the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, data from prior epidemics shows that suicides may decrease during an epidemic, but may increase once the epidemic subsides.

Like many mental illnesses, suicide still suffers from stigma. That means public health officials are faced with the challenge of identifying people who need help and encouraging them to get the assistance they need. While the WHO has recommended a number of prevention tips, additional data collection and tracking from public health organizations around the globe can drastically improve suicide prevention and education.

Pediatric and Adolescent Mental Health

Mental health is often discussed in the context of adult health care, but it remains a substantial problem for children and adolescents, too. As the WHO reports, 14% of children age 10 to 19 around the globe — 1 in 7 — experience mental illnesses, and neuropsychiatric conditions are the most common cause of disability in adolescents.

The pandemic’s disruption to education and recreation-based routines is having an effect on the mental health of children around the world. UNICEF data suggests that more than 1.6 billion children experienced some education loss during COVID-19, and that 1 in 7 children around the globe has been directly impacted by lockdowns. UNICEF also states that the impact of COVID-19 can shape and impact a child’s mental health over the course of their lifetime.

While the WHO has committed to improving advocacy and mental health services for children and adolescents in underserved communities, this may not be enough to tackle the issue. SAMHSA has instituted an annual awareness day for pediatric mental health, complete with social media and outreach tools to increase understanding. The organization also provides educational materials to help young adults, families and caregivers recognize signs of mental illness in children.

Finding a Path Forward

Ways to address mental health problems include improving treatments to mitigate mental health issues and creating better avenues for mental health care access. COVID-19 highlighted this by making unfortunate circumstances even worse: According to the CDC, the percentage of people reporting an unmet mental health care need jumped from 9.3% to 11.7% between August 2020 and February 2021.

In response, public health specialists are using numerous avenues to become involved in advocating for mental health awareness and improving treatments for and prevention of these issues. For instance, one of the objectives of the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion’s Healthy People 2020 initiative is improving mental health care access for children. This initiative also aims to provide more depression screening services and increase the employment rate of people with serious mental illnesses.

Increased federal funding for addressing mental health issues can enable public health professionals to take part in expanded research and treatment programs. From increased access to early intervention programs to expanded access in underserved communities, public health officials can continue to make strides to address this important issue.

Earning an online Master of Public Health degree can open the door for you to address mental health concerns across the nation or around the world. Visit Keck School of Medicine of USC to learn more about the degree program and how you can contribute to the conversation on mental illness and public health.


Recommended Readings

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The Things That Keep People Healthy


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Symptoms of Anxiety or Depressive Disorder and Use of Mental Health Care Among Adults During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, August 2020-February 2021

CNBC, “What You Need to Know About the Cost and Accessibility of Mental Health Care in America”

KFF, Adults Reporting Symptoms of Anxiety or Depressive Disorder During COVID-19 Pandemic

KFF, “The Implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Use”

National Center for Health Statistics, Early Release of Selected Mental Health Estimates Based on Data from the January-June 2019 National Health Interview Survey

Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Mental Health and Mental Disorders 

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day

UNICEF, “Impact of COVID-19 on Poor Mental Health in Children and Young People ‘Tip of the Iceberg’”

World Health Organization, Adolescent Mental Health

World Health Organization, Mental Health & COVID-19

World Health Organization, Mental Health and Substance Use

World Health Organization, Suicide

World Health Organization, World Health Day 2021: Building a Fairer, Healthier World