In March we marked the third anniversary of the first confirmed case of COVID in Virginia and shared the good news that our levels of lab-confirmed cases and hospitalizations have now stabilized at low levels. As COVID is likely to continue to be with us, we will remain vigilant while using the tools of surveillance, testing, vaccination, and treatment to manage the routine aspects of living with the disease.
At this crossroads, we surveyed our newsletter readers to learn what they consider to be the most serious non-COVID public health issue that we face. While topics such as chronic disease and cancer received many votes, the issue that rose to the top of the list for most readers was mental health. The votes for mental health combined with the votes for substance use accounted for over 40% of the 1500 votes that were cast.
Poor mental health can lead to financial, emotional, and physical strain that can create and exacerbate physical illnesses. According to a 2019 study in the medical journal, The Lancet, mental illness can reduce life expectancy by 20 years.
In Virginia, state-funded mental health services for residents are primarily provided through community service boards and acute care psychiatric facilities. Although local health department offices do not typically receive funds to provide direct mental health services, we partner with many community-based partners and healthcare professionals to increase awareness of mental health issues, reduce stigma, and reduce health disparities with the goal that every resident receives the treatment they deserve and need.
Stress has a direct impact on mental health. April is National Stress Awareness month, a time to reflect on the negative impact of stress. Stress can provide motivation to meet deadlines, but living with stress for a long period can cause harmful consequences such as sleeplessness, rapid heart rates, and depression. These in turn can lead to the need for more medical care, or worse, open the door to substance use as a coping mechanism.
Here are some tips that can help minimize stress and reduce its negative health impacts:
- Be aware of your emotions and how your body feels. Recognize in your mind the times when you’re having excessive stress and what might be causing it. Sometimes simply acknowledging that a situation is stressful can provide relief and allow you to take steps to deal with it.
- At times the source of stress is within our control to address or will ease with time. However, if the cause of stress is long-lasting or outside our reach, some options that have been shown to reduce stress include exercise, meditation, working on being more organized, and doing things that you enjoy, such as hobbies.
- Try to eat healthy, well-balanced meals, get plenty of sleep, avoid excessive alcohol, and eliminate any tobacco and substance use.
- Ask for help. The first step is recognizing when you need more help and not being embarrassed to seek support. If you are thinking about suicide, talk to a psychologist, social worker, or professional counselor. Ready to make the call? A national helpline for treatment and referrals is available at 800-662-HELP.
RCAHD staff will continue to work with partners to address and improve policies for better community mental health through the public health lens. To learn more about public health efforts, visit our website to sign up for our newsletter at vdh.virginia.gov/Roanoke.
-Christie Willis, communications officer
Roanoke City & Alleghany Health Districts
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