Q&A with Wizdom Powell, director of the UConn Health Disparities Institute
What are your top priorities for the Health Disparities Institute (HDI) at UConn Health as you begin your second year as director?
During my first nine months, HDI underwent an internal, strategic refocusing process. This process involved conducting an organizational 360-degree assessment and reviewing state-level data on health disparities outcomes and populations. It resulted in the identification of four complementary strategic focus areas: health systems change, utilization, and finance; behavioral health; chronic disease prevention and control; and neighborhoods, housing, and health.
HDI is committed to advancing health equity and works explicitly to connect, support, and serve populations at greatest risk for poor health and social outcomes. These goals are accomplished by generating rigorous evidence for action, building multisector coalitions, translating data for policy impact, and accelerating community-sourced innovations. We apply an explicit racial equity lens to our work. We value social justice, youth engagement, and the power of art to amplify community voice and disrupt single stories about the truly underserved.
What initiatives has HDI put in place or advanced in the past year, and how are they helping people?
Boys and men of color (BMoC) in our nation are uniquely underserved across a number of health indicators. Currently, HDI is developing several initiatives designed to address social determinants of health, well-being, and health equity among BMoC. Recognizing this critical gap, the HDI has established a multisector alliance composed of private, public, academic, and community leaders to provide high-level strategic guidance and accelerate systems change for BMoC in Connecticut. HDI recently launched a series of overlapping research, policy translation, and programmatic initiatives focused on advancing health equity for boys and men of color in the state.
What can physicians do to better serve men and boys?
I think it is important for health care providers to be aware of the gendered help-seeking barriers men and boys experience. Such barriers include shared cultural norms and values that discourage men from disclosing vulnerability and distress. These norms may lead some men to avoid health care altogether or “watch and wait” even when health symptoms are present. It is important for health care providers to maximize appointments with men and boys, for example, by screening for behavioral health symptoms during a primary care visit.
Recently, public figures like Jay-Z and NBA star Kevin Love have spoken out about mental health struggles and the stigma surrounding them. Are we on the verge of a sea change? What more needs to be done on a cultural and policy level?
It is always encouraging when public figures leverage their influence to promote mental health awareness. They have a bigger platform than scientists and far fewer structural constraints on their media engagement. In my more than a decade in the men’s health space, I have witnessed ebbs and flows in the scientific and public discourse about these issues. We are definitely in a flow period. To achieve a sea change, we also need to change systems, culture, and policy.
We certainly need mental health parity in the way we pay for services. A lot could be accomplished by the systemwide integration of behavioral and primary care services. We would also benefit tremendously from changing norms. Men and boys (and the women and girls who love them) would be healthier if they had fewer social sanctions around displaying emotional vulnerability. We encourage men and boys to be strong, stoic, and silent. If we are going to have a real sea change, those norms have to be disrupted.