Colorado School of Public Health Student Jillian Foss Explores the Intersectionality of Mental Health and Obesity
by Jillian Foss
Students of Public Health focuses on research projects and other contributions students are making to advance public health. This series is guest edited by Johanzynn Gatewood, an MPH candidate in Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Florida-Gainesville [Full bio].
STUDENT VOICES — Can mindfulness lower your risk of developing obesity over time? If mental states affect physical health, what can be done to optimize communities’ mental well-being? What would a truly integrated health system look like that encompasses a parity of esteem? My work in public health revolves around these questions with the underlying mission of bridging the gap between mental and physical health.
Growing up in Wyoming, I guess you could say I was a free-thinker, or at least fascinated by the things that are the hardest to prove by scientific inquiry. I have maintained that positive and curious attitude and am particularly drawn to mental health and well-being, which is integral to overall health. I believe the way we look at mental health through a pathological lens simply is not good enough, and there needs to be institutional changes within public health departments, research institutes, and by primary care providers to fully consider the mental health dimension of issues commonly conceptualized as physical health concerns, such as smoking, obesity, and substance misuse.
In line with this belief, the Adolescent Wellness Laboratory at Colorado State University works to help the public recognize the mental health dimension of gaining excess weight over time. I am a research assistant involved in a number of different studies aiming to learn more about programs that lower stress and depression, increase healthy behaviors, and decrease teens’ likelihood of developing physical and mental health problems. As a lab, we seek to understand more about how relationships, stress, and mental states impact kids’ eating behavior and ways in which we can improve health and wellness among adolescents. We believe that by helping adolescents attend to their emotional distress — and by treating depression and anxiety — they will ultimately become more resilient to illness and disease.
For the American Public Health Association annual meeting this year, I presented a poster that explored associations among trait mindfulness, binge-eating, anxiety/depression, and adiposity in adolescents at-risk for excess weight gain. In multivariate analyses predicting percent adiposity from mindfulness, binge-eating, symptoms of anxiety and depression, and controlling for sex and age, dispositional mindfulness was the only significant, unique predictor of adiposity. One theory is that increasing mindfulness can enhance emotional regulation; having better ways to cope with negative feelings could decrease reliance on binge-eating and ultimately reduce excess weight gain over time. Through this research, I learned that obesity is more complex than the long-standing rhetoric, “eat less, exercise more.” It also brought my attention to the social determinants of mental and physical health and the need to develop social and physical environments that promote good health for all.
Adjunct to my work within the adolescent wellness laboratory, my internship is with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Through this experience, I am realizing that public health departments have the opportunity to set an example and lead the movement of true upstream prevention of mental illness and promotion of mental health. Although perpetuated stigma and lack of mental health literacy can act as barriers impeding action towards change, we are in a time of true need for innovation. This means being creative, taking risks, and gathering as much cross-cutting support and research as possible.
My advice to future public health students is to be patient, wear persistency pants, and hold tight to their vision of the world they want to see. Each small step, especially in the field of research may seem slow, but each step does count.
For further reading, consider these related articles from the Journal of Public Health Management & Practice:*
- Promoting Health and Behavioral Health Equity in California
- When Does Mental Health Become Public Health?
- Supporting Collaboration Between Mental Health and Public Health
*Articles may require a subscription to JPHMP or purchase.
Jillian Foss is a second year MPH candidate at the Colorado School of Public Health with a global health and health disparities focus. After graduating from Arizona State University in 2010 with a BA in Psychology, she became passionate about the role of mental health and stress on population health. Her research interests focus on understanding the role of psychological functioning in the etiology, development, and prevention of obesity and obesity-related health problems.