By Dr. Pallavi Gowda, Board Member of the Rotary Action Group for Mental Health Initiatives/ Charter President of Potomac Passport Rotary Club (United States)
The World Health Organization recognizes today, 10 October 2023, as World Mental Health Day. This is an important opportunity for us to consider the ways that we can support Rotary President Gordon McInally’s call to prioritize mental health.
As President Gordon has said on many occasions, we can take a first step towards playing an active role in mental health by attending to our own mental health needs – and bringing our full, authentic selves to Rotary. In addition to being a primary care physician in Potomac, Maryland (United States), I am also a U.S. Army veteran and of South Asian heritage, which provides me with a deeper understanding of the distinct challenges that individuals within these communities often encounter. I see a mental health connection to every facet of my life.
Through working with the Rotary Action Group on Mental Health Initiatives, we have identified how to apply community-focused concepts that make other Rotary-supported efforts a success – in particular, the global support efforts around polio. As a public health doctor, I can say that whether we are talking about the pandemic of polio or mental health, there are three key actionable concepts that are evident and constitute the pillars of this action group. They are:
- Raise awareness
- Break stigma
- Increase access to care
The Rotary Action Group on Mental Health Initiatives serves to address each of these but needs Rotary and Rotaract members from around the world to join the efforts. We welcome anyone who is willing to join hands to achieve this mission. We offer toolkits on our website that we encourage clubs to adopt, and we encourage dialogue in clubs to erase the stigma. Most of our toolkits are available in several languages.
In addition, we are piloting a successful program through Boston’s Childrens Hospital to improve access by training primary care doctors (general practitioners) to treat mild to moderate depression/ anxiety given the shortage of child psychiatrists. It has been inspiring being part of a group that has members across the world who have such a deep understanding of the cultural complexities surrounding mental health worldwide.
As a physician, I witness firsthand the important role primary care physicians play in supporting mental health. They are the frontline mental health care providers and often the only ones for some people due to personal biases or limited access or funds. Thus, it is imperative to create an environment that encourages patients to speak freely about mental health issues. A primary care physician’s ability to do this also ties back to awareness and education around mental health, which will facilitate their ability to assess situations effectively and efficiently and provide linkage to appropriate mental health-specific services.
As a former US Army medical doctor who has taken care of more than 15,000 service members, I had the opportunity to witness the impact of mental health in every aspect of their lives. Whether it is a veteran’s “nation above self” creed or a Rotary member’s “Serve Above Self” philosophy, both veterans and Rotary and Rotaract members are grounded in service. As an active-duty soldier at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, my hospital commander at the time, Rotarian Dr. Norvell “Van” Coots, required us to view numerous suicide-prevention trainings. A fundamental concept that kept repeating was to identify warning signs in ourselves and those around us. I was able to share my experience and lessons learned with the Rotary Action Group on Mental Health Initiatives, which wanted to adopt and apply the concept within Rotary. The question was not whether but how. The Rotary Action Group on Mental Health Initiatives board members stepped up, and we created a mental health and wellness survey, a “one-minute mental health check” based on the evidence-based concept of PHQ2, which is a screening tool for depression. The completely anonymous survey can help people recognize mental health warning signs they may not have considered before. The awareness of each member to recognize depression allows them to identify it in club members and recommend seeking help from a professional.
For me, bringing the concept of looking inward and looking out for those around us is rooted in the “Battle Buddy” concept heavily reinforced and initiated by the U.S. Army.
Finally, as someone from the South Asian community, I know the unique challenges our community faces in mental health – including a strong cultural stigma around discussing it. In our culture, mental health challenges are often associated with weakness or seen as an obstacle to reaching professional aspirations, which can deter people from seeking help. In addition, traditional values and conflicts stemming from them can create barriers. Adding further strain, there is a significant lack of mental health professionals, significant language barriers, and a lack of mental health awareness or understanding. But none of these challenges create despair, they just elevate the importance of the work we can do to raise awareness, break stigma, and increase access to care by supporting projects that do so.
I am so grateful that President Gordon has placed a focus on this critical issue – and that he has empowered the Rotary Action Group for Mental Health Initiatives to continue with its leadership role on this issue for years to come. The benefits of taking care of our members and our communities allow us to feel better about ourselves, create goodwill, and according to business models, increase productivity and innovation of the organization in the long run.
And I hope you will join me – and President Gordon – on a social media live event happening today that is available for repeat streaming on Facebook, LinkedIn, and YouTube (with subtitles available in multiple languages). Please click the links to be directly connected.