Salk Health Activist Fellows Strategize for Timely Mental Health Reforms

Twenty-eight fellows representing 18 different specialties and 13 universities participated in the Salk Fellowship.

During an unprecedented public health crisis facing the mental health system, the time is now for overdue mental health reforms. With a President and Governor committed to improving the mental health system, this year's Salk Health Activist Fellowship focused on how to leverage resources and attention to make effective policy contributions for the populations most at risk of system gaps. The Fellowship focused on equipping healthcare activists with effective skills and frameworks to advance policy issues to address needs within the mental health system.

Over nine-weeks from September 19 through November 14, an interdisciplinary cohort of 28 fellows representing 18 different specialties and 13 universities collaborated within eight teams to strategize on action plans to advance policy change.

"I have loved my experience as a Salk Health Activist Fellow," Corey Flynn, MPPM, doctoral student in the University of Pittsburgh's School of Education, Health, and Physical Activity program. "The absolute best part was meeting my group. We had a wonderful time working on our topic of youth voice advocacy. Having the tools to know how to advocate for positive change is invaluable to my academics and career."

The fellows built advocacy action plans focused on existing or theoretical legislation in Pennsylvania that addresses: supporting healthcare worker mental health, creating an age-friendly system, elevating youth voice to improve mental health systems, transforming school-based mental health services, establishing universal mental health screenings in primary care, improving 988 education in K-12 schools, providing financial support to build up the behavioral health workforce, and advancing syringe service program legalization and decriminalization.

"The Salk Fellowship provided the policymaking framework for my advocacy impact in mental health. It allowed me to apply frontline patient care insights and to hone policy advocacy skills with guidance from policy experts and support of a like-minded cohort of mental health activists," said Karen Kwok, MSN, FNP, MPH, digital health nurse practitioner at Brillient Corporation. "I came away from the fellowship experience more familiar with the policymaking process and ready to make mental health policy with strategic success. I highly recommend the Salk Health Activist Fellowship for early and midcareer professionals eager to make a difference in priority policy areas with the tutelage of policy experts and a supportive learning community."

The program would not have been possible without the support of partners and experts including: State Representative Aerion Abney; Coley Alston, MPH, program director at Hugh Lane Wellness Foundation; Julius Boatwright, MSW, LSW, RYT, founder and managing director at Steel Smiling; Gretchen Chapman, PhD, professor in Social & Decision Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University; Donna Cooper, MPA, MIM, executive director at Children First; Lynn Cooper, behavioral health policy specialist at Pennsylvania Association of Area Agencies on Aging; Connor Dalgaard, student at Vassar College; State Representative and Chair of the House Health Committee Dan Frankel; Kathi Elliot, DNP, MSW, CRNP, chief executive officer at Gwen's Girls; Jourdan Hicks, MS.Ed, community correspondent at PublicSource; Matthew Hurford, MD, president and CEO at Community Care Behavioral Health; Rich Lord, managing editor of Public Source; Elizabeth Miller, MD, PhD, FSAHM, medical director of Community and Population Health at UPMC Children's Hospital; State Representative and Majority Whip Dan Miller; State Representative Napoleon Nelson; and State Representative Arvind Venkat, MD.

The program this year also benefited from mentorship from previous Salk Alumni that came back to share their journey and knowledge with this year's fellows, including Hillary Holes DeFrancesco, CHES (2018 alum); Amber Edmunds (2022 alum); Selena Eisenberg (2018 alum); Marita Garrett, MA (2012 alum); Callum Harding (2021 alum); Alyce Palko (2021 alum); and Mike Stancil, MPS (2022 alum).

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