Mental Health Champions: Why & How Jane Chai of Conduent Healthy Communities Institute Is Helping…

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Mental Health Champions: Why & How Jane Chai of Conduent Healthy Communities Institute Is Helping To Champion Mental Wellness

I try to put tasks on autopilot as much as possible. I have a routine for almost everything — waking up in the morning, prepping meals, exercise, closing out my workday. This doesn’t make for the most interesting life, but it really helps me not feel too overwhelmed with day-to-day tasks.

As a part of our series about Mental Health Champions helping to promote mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Jane Chai, MPH.

Jane Chai, MPH is the Community Health Content Expert with Conduent Healthy Communities Institute (HCI). She holds a Master of Public Health from the UCLA School of Public Health in the field of community health sciences. Ms. Chai has worked in the field of public health for more than 20 years on topics ranging from reproductive health, HIV/AIDS, Asian American community health, and substance use. In her current position, Jane provides thought leadership and expertise to HCI, which recently launched a Mental Health Index to help identify communities at greatest risk for poor mental health outcomes.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

You are currently leading a social impact organization that is helping to promote mental wellness. Can you tell us a bit about what you or your organization are trying to address?

I am a Community Health Content Expert with Conduent Healthy Communities Institute. We specialize in looking at health through a social determinants of health lens, which means looking at how we live, work, play, and learn can impact our health and wellbeing. We help health departments, hospitals, health systems, and community collaboratives look at data and learn about community experiences to identify priorities for improving health in their communities.

In the past 10 years or so, we’ve started to see mental health and behavioral health as a top priority for many communities. We wanted to dig into what the contributing factors were and how we could use our expertise in data, analytics, and community planning to help address this growing issue. Earlier this year, Conduent developed our Mental Health Index, which pulls together data about socioeconomic and health factors that puts communities most at-risk for poor mental health to identify highest risk areas. The idea is that once we’ve identified those areas, communities can work together on interventions and better invest resources for prevention and early intervention.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

I have been working in community health for over 20 years, eight of those years were spent supporting work around HIV prevention, care, and housing services at the local health department. Our mission was to prevent the spread of HIV in our community and provide medical care for those living with HIV. This involved working with people living with HIV to understand their needs and allocate funding for services.

Working in this area, what really struck me was that while getting people into medical care and decreasing their HIV viral loads was important for those of us working in public health, medical care was often not at the top of the priority list for people living with HIV. Our clients shared that in order for them to regularly take their medications and go to the doctor, they first needed support for their basic needs like food, transportation, housing, job placement, life skills, and for some, services to help them with mental health and substance use.

My commitment to addressing the social determinants of mental health comes from hearing the stories of community members who took their time to educate me on their lived experiences.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest them. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

One of my first jobs was as a health educator in the juvenile halls in Los Angeles. When I was there, I got to know a few of the kids and saw how bright and thoughtful they were. But it was heartbreaking when I learned that they couldn’t see a bright future for themselves. It seemed that their lives outside of the halls were almost as challenging as within it. They would talk about returning to unsafe neighborhoods, underfunded schools, or unstable housing. I saw firsthand that our community and environment, especially for those at a young age, has so much influence on our opportunities to thrive.

That experience affirmed my passion for working in public health, and in particular, community health. I know that many people think about doctors when we think about improving health, or psychologists when thinking about mental health. But I felt called to public health because of its focus on improving wellbeing at a broader level, by working with communities through policies and community interventions.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

I have been blessed to have many mentors and cheerleaders in my career. One that stands out is one of my first supervisors who hired me at the health department. I knew that she was very competent and had previously held a high-up position at the California governor’s office. So naturally, I was very intimidated and thought she had a lot to teach me.

But what surprised me was during my first week on the job, she told me to write down all of my questions and observations my first six months at my new job. She said those questions and observations would likely bring light to flaws in the system that others might miss because they are too familiar with the system. This was a great way to make me feel like I had something important to offer as someone who was new to their position. I still keep that lesson at heart to this day — when I’m working on something, I try to think about what I might be missing because I’ve just been doing something the same way for too long.

According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?

Well, of course, there are so many factors that I think drives this. America’s culture of individualism is something I think about often as it relates to this problem of stigma.

Americans place a lot of value in individualism, or the idea that we are all unique individuals who do not need to depend on others. In one way, this can be very liberating. However, I think this has led to quite a bit of tax on us in terms of mental health. Because when we come across something like mental illness, we might internalize that this is an individual problem that we should be able to address on our own.

And at a policy level, I think this limits us to thinking about interventions for mental health as something that can only be solved at the individual level. But we know this isn’t true. For instance, countries with better social safety nets often do not have the level of mental illness that we see in America. So we can think of a more robust social service system as a way of improving mental health and wellbeing.

I hope that by looking at mental health at a community level through Conduent’s Mental Health Index, we are helping to shed some light on seeing mental health as something that is impacted by social and economic factors, not just as a result of individual shortcomings.

In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?

Working for many years in the public sector, I’m inclined to think about what government can do in this area since I think government touches so many lives.

First, I think we need to make mental health and substance use services a standard part of healthcare. We’ve tried to do this through some policies, for instance the Mental Health Parity passed in 1996 and then the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act 2008. But each time this legislation is passed, we haven’t quite backed it up with adequate resources and action. I would love to see us do that in a more substantial way. I think doing so would help reduce the stigma around mental illness that we just talked about. If we got a mental health checkup the same way we got our blood pressure checked, people might feel more comfortable talking about mental health.

On a broader level, I think we could look to alternatives for how we measure success as a country. The U.S. has seen our rankings in life expectancy drop even as our GDP rises. Perhaps we could incorporate what countries like Bhutan have done in using a Gross National Happiness, which looks at psychological wellbeing, resilience, community vitality as a measure of success. There’s an adage “What gets measured gets done.” It seems like what we’ve been measuring hasn’t been helping us get to better outcomes for wellbeing, so maybe we should consider a change or at least add some other metrics for measuring success.

What are your 5 3 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?

  1. I try to put tasks on autopilot as much as possible. I have a routine for almost everything — waking up in the morning, prepping meals, exercise, closing out my workday. This doesn’t make for the most interesting life, but it really helps me not feel too overwhelmed with day-to-day tasks.
  2. Regularly connecting with my friends and family. My sister and I are very close so we will have conversations throughout the day. During COVID, I, like many others, begin some regular video calls with old friends that we’ve continued through the pandemic. And like everyone else, I took up gardening during COVID as well. It’s something that my mom is great at, but I always avoided it. But now I find it’s a great way to connect with my mom, and the plants themselves teach me a lot about patience and resilience.
  3. Exercise. I know exercise can feel like the last thing you want to do when you are mentally exhausted. But for me, this is one of the best things I can do to let go of my anxious energy. I try to do something fairly rigorous three times a week and the rest of the week, I walk my dog and walk on the treadmill for 15 minutes.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?

I love listening to podcasts while I clean or cook. I use them as a learning tool for work and also to boost my own mental health.

I like listening to podcasts that teach me about history and current events from different perspectives. Code Switch, Rough Translation, and Throughline are some of my favorites — each has a range of topics that I always find relevant to my work and the communities we serve. Especially because when listening to these, I realize that my own formal education has been so limited in terms of stories from women or communities of color.

I also regularly listen to Tara Brach’s podcast. It is a mix of spiritual talks and guided meditations. I appreciate that she openly talks about the impact of institutional racism and other social inequities on our spiritual practice. To me, this is something that we need to talk about more openly when addressing mental wellbeing. Many people of color are reluctant to seek mental health services or join meditation practices because they fear that their lived experiences will be questioned or dismissed. If we are trying to get people to be their most enlightened selves, we should acknowledge that how the world treats us based on how they see our race, gender, or sexual orientation has a lot to do with our spiritual practice and mental health.

I do think laughter does wonders for mental health. One of my go-to podcasts to make me laugh is 2 Dope Queens, even though there haven’t been new podcast episodes since they got a show on HBO, I still listen to the reruns because they are just that funny.

If you could tell other people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Doing something that positively impacts others is scientifically proven to improve your mental health!

How can our readers follow you online?

They can find me on LinkedIn

They can also find more information about Conduent Healthy Communities Institute on our website and follow Conduent at

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Mental Health Champions: Why & How Jane Chai of Conduent Healthy Communities Institute Is Helping… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.