Tips from an Expert

Florida Atlantic: Tips from an Expert

Alumnus Offers Insights to Improve Mental Health

Two-time Florida Atlantic University alumnus Arthur C. Evans Jr., Ph.D., is an outspoken proponent for psychological science and mental health. The longtime health care innovator has served as the chief executive officer and executive vice president of the American Psychological Association (APA) since 2017.

“I have often said that I feel like I was born to be a psychologist, so it is an honor and a privilege to be the CEO of the leading scientific and professional society representing psychology in the United States, with more than 145,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students as members,” Evans said. “It is also a huge responsibility, and I am fortunate to work with about 550 employees helping the APA meet its mission of using psychology to benefit society and improve lives. Together, we carry out and implement a range of activities that are based on policies that are developed by our member leaders.”

Prior to his role at the APA, Evans served as commissioner of Philadelphia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Service for 12 years. He has held faculty appointments at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, the Drexel School of Public Health and Yale University School of Medicine. Evans is the author or co-author of numerous peer-reviewed research articles, chapters, reviews and editorials. He also has been recognized nationally for his work in behavioral health care policy and the transformation of service delivery systems.

Evans graduated from Florida Atlantic with his bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1982 and his master’s degree in experimental psychology in 1984. He earned a doctorate in clinical/community psychology from the University of Maryland. In 2017, he was inducted into the Florida Atlantic University Alumni Hall of Fame in recognition of his research, community activism, policy and cross-system collaborations to change the status quo and improve mental health outcomes.

“FAU was critical to my career,” Evans said. “I found it to be a supportive place that provided many opportunities for growth and leadership. The training that I received in experimental psychology — both a B.A. and an M.A. — was outstanding and provided a strong foundation for my doctoral training in clinical and community psychology. I am forever indebted to the university for the career and life it has afforded me.” The trailblazing health care advocate shared some insights to promote and improve mental health, both individually and in our communities.

Q: Why is it important to maintain not just physical health, but also one’s mental health?

A: There is a wealth of scientific research showing a very clear connection between physical and mental health — for example, the relationship between psychological conditions and experiences like stress, depression, anxiety, trauma and discrimination and physical health outcomes, like inflammation, hypertension and heart disease. The most effective treatments and exercises are those that recognize both the mental and physical components of health. The more we can reinforce and communicate these links to the public — and to the broader health care system — the more likely we are to put people on the road to good overall health.

Q: What do you see as the future of mental health and psychology? What current trends do you see in this field, or permeating through society, that are promising?

A: Right now, our nation is wrestling with so many complex societal issues — recovery from the pandemic, a challenging economic environment and continuing concerns about racial justice, to name a few — all of which are connected to people’s mental health and well-being. Additionally, if we think about the vast unmet mental health needs that existed before the pandemic and recognize how the pandemic has only exacerbated these problems, it is clear that doing more of the same is not the answer.

This is the reason that the APA recently adopted a policy to promote population health as a framework. It was developed out of a recognition that we must address the mental health of the entire population, not just those who have a diagnosable condition or are in crisis. This means that — in addition to ensuring access to effective clinical care — we put greater emphasis on prevention, early intervention and mental health promotion.

I am optimistic that the future of mental health is bright if we embrace this kind of population health approach. It will lead to more people reaching out for and receiving care when and where they need it, less stigma around mental health, greater attention to proactive prevention like building resilience in children, and people taking more ownership over having good mental health in the same way many people pay attention to having good physical health.

Q: What are some key practices you recommend incorporating into one’s routine to ensure optimal self-care and mental well-being?

A: Many of these practices sound like common sense, but they are actually rooted in psychological research and shown to benefit well-being. One of the most important factors involved is social support, spending time — even on the phone or virtually — with family and friends who make you feel safe and happy.

It’s also important to eat well, exercise and get enough sleep. Practice mindfulness. Spend time in nature. Be aware of time spent on social media and screen time and set personal limits. Be kind to others and to yourself. Hug your kids, your partner, your friends. Intentionally spend time doing the things that you love and don’t feel guilty. Sometimes, we are so focused on our never-ending “to do” list that we don’t stop to enjoy life, believing that we can’t afford the time to focus on ourselves. The reality is that we can’t afford not to.

Q: What should we do to break through those low periods to avoid more serious anxiety or depression, especially for those who may have experienced trouble isolating themselves during COVID-19?

A: Ensuring time and attention to take care of oneself sounds selfish and frivolous to some, but it’s critical for ensuring good mental health for ourselves and those around us. The underlying premise is that we can do better — as employees, as parents, as partners — if we take some time to care for ourselves in meaningful ways. That care looks different for different people — time alone listening to music, being with friends, connecting with our faith community, staying physically active, etc. Replenishing our well-being and building resilience should be something routine and ongoing, so we can more successfully navigate those “low periods” when they occur.

It’s important to emphasize that psychologists and other mental health professionals can help, too. For some, their anxiety or sadness impairs their daily functioning, so therapy is critical for getting through the low periods. For others, it’s a tool that enables them to try to be their best selves. In short, don’t be afraid to ask for help, whether that’s from a licensed psychologist or other licensed mental health provider, or your family and friends, your pastor or other religious leader, etc.

Q: What can we do with our families, friends and in our workplaces to make mental health more approachable, inclusive and part of the conversation? Why is this so important?

A: We must normalize mental health and see it as a part of our overall health. We can do this by talking to each other when we are concerned about our mental health, or when we see someone struggling — and listen, which I can’t emphasize enough. If a friend tells you that they are OK, don’t be afraid to probe. You can ask, “Are you sure?” especially if you know someone has been having a hard time. Let people know you are open and available to talk about mental health issues. Part of this involves helping people understand that mental health is not necessarily about mental illness, but is an important aspect for everyone’s well-being.

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