American Psychiatric Association

This issue of the Psychiatric News Alert previews highlights of this year’s Annual Meeting.

May 21, 2022 | Psychiatric News

APA President Urges Renewed Attention to Social Determinants of Mental Health

Psychiatry should resume a focus on prevention of the social, economic, and political factors that impact mental health outcomes, said APA President Vivian Pender, M.D., during her presidential address at the APA Annual Meeting today. Her remarks expounded on the theme she had chosen for her presidential year: “Social Determinants of Mental Health.”

“It’s been said that your ZIP code or the color of your skin has the potential to influence your general health,” said Pender. “But it’s also clear that not enough attention is paid to how these factors influence your mental health, both negatively and positively.

“It may seem like these issues are outside our ‘traditional lanes,’ but mental health does not occur in a vacuum, and our models of mental health should similarly not ignore evidence of factors that affect our patients—such as racism, violence, migration, neighborhood, and climate change—and how our patients’ ancestry, their traditions, and culture that are transmitted from one generation to the next influence their mental health. Our Native American reservations are an example of our history that remains essentially hidden and neglected.


A landmark of Pender’s presidential year was the appointment of the Task Force on Social Determinants of Mental Health, chaired by past APA President Dilip Jeste, M.D. The task force developed recommendations for psychiatric education, research, advocacy, and clinical practice. She invited the audience to learn more about this work by attending the session “Social Determinants of Mental Health: Task Force Report“ on Monday at 10:30 a.m. in Room 290.

Another major session she urged the audience to attend is a reprise of a popular session held last fall at APA’s Mental Health Services Conference. The participants are psychiatrist Sarah Vinson, M.D., co-editor of Social (In)Justice and Mental Health from APA Publishing, and Peter Blair, Ph.D., a Harvard economist, who will discuss the socioeconomic and political factors that intersect with mental health.

In clinical practice, Pender urged psychiatrists to talk deeply with patients about their social and family environments. “We must ask our patients more about their lives,” Pender said. “What does their average day look like? How are they paying their bills? We must ask them more about violence—any kind of aggression, but particularly domestic violence, not just today, but also in their past. We know that often they won’t volunteer this information, so we must ask. If we are genuinely interested, they will trust us and share their lived experience.”


To achieve and maintain the effort to bring about positive change, strong advocacy is needed. “We can also be ambassadors, educating students, other clinicians, and other disciplines, about the importance of acknowledging the social determinants of mental health,” she said. “No one is proposing that psychiatry abandon our medical precepts. But it is undeniable that understanding the social context in which our patients live has the potential to enhance care and their well-being. We have to extend ourselves to all stakeholders, local community groups, Black churches, reservation councils, law enforcement, schools, and so on and not wait for them to come to our siloed offices.”

Psychiatrists who speak with a united voice to federal, state, and local policymakers can have the broadest effect on the social determinants of mental health—advocating for policies that address structural racism, human trafficking, violence, and the neglect of children.

“Over the years, I have been inspired by all those who volunteer their time and energy to psychiatry. It is a field with a strong ethos of working in the public interest,” Pender said. “When we advocate together with one voice, we can wield substantial influence for the greater good.

“We have a collective and individual duty to not stand by, but to act where we can help those who cannot help themselves. The world will listen to us if we are genuinely caring. And this effort will go far to eradicate the stigma that exists within psychiatry.” ■

Coverage of the sessions on the report of the Task Force on the Social Determinants of Mental Health and the Monday plenary with Vinson and Blair will appear in future issues of this newsletter.