We must all recon with our movement and our connection to the outside world.
COVID-19 has put us under enormous physical, emotional pressure, constraining our movement and forcing us to isolate in ways that are anathema to our human existence as mobile, social creatures. Add on top of this the very real human toll and trauma faced by so many – especially communities of color – combined with social and economic insecurity foisted upon us, and it has spelled a recipe for worsening health and mental health.
As a physician, epidemiologist, mental health and public health expert, I have watched the past year unfold with a mix of shock, fear, uncertainty, and sadness, as more than half a million Americans have died from Covid, and 30,000 New Yorkers. My colleagues and I that have continued to provide healthcare during the pandemic have done so out of a sense of duty and calling, but not without a significant amount of worry and concern for our loved ones and ourselves. As a husband and father of three, also working from home, leading a nonprofit through these unprecedented times, I’ve felt the strain quite directly on my mind and body, and it has added up over time. And I’m one of the lucky ones, able to choose when and how I expose myself in my professional roles.
The saving grace, for me, has been the ability to get outside into nature and onto the roads on my bicycle. In this way, the best therapeutic I have had for my mental and physical health has been biking. In the midst of a growing mental health epidemic, a “second pandemic” whose long tail we will be experiencing for years after the last case of Covid is diagnosed, we must all reckon with our movement and our connection to the outside world, in order to face up to the long term mental and physical health challenges created by the pandemic. The connection between biking and physical health is obvious, but there is also growing understanding that biking can lead to improved cognitive function, brain-body connectivity, and can reduce symptoms of depression and stress/anxiety.
Our health and our infrastructure, especially in cities like New York, are inextricably linked, but also deeply inequitable. Even as we’ve seen Covid disproportionately impact some communities more than others, we continue to see biking and alternative transportation infrastructure be inequitably distributed. But Covid should teach us (again), that we’re all connected, and that access to safe, healthy, green modes of transportation is a basic right, not a privilege reserved for the lucky few. If we are to stand up to the health and mental health challenges of the next few years, we must work together to build cities that are easier and safer to move around in – cities that make the healthy choice (biking and movement) the easy choice.
President and CEO of Fountain House
Ashwin Vasan, M.D., PhD, is the President and CEO of Fountain House, a national nonprofit fighting to improve health, increase opportunity and reduce social and economic isolation for people with serious mental illness.
Since his appointment in 2019, Dr. Vasan has grown Fountain House from a direct service provider in NYC to a national leader in mental health. Under Dr. Vasan’s leadership, Fountain House’s work has advanced at the intersection of health, mental illness, homelessness, criminal justice and social welfare for marginalized communities by centering the voices of people with lived experience. In the coming year, Fountain House intends to form a national mental health clubhouse network, establish a digital innovation arm, and build a 501c4 political advocacy arm.
A practicing physician, academic, and public servant, Dr. Vasan holds concurrent positions as an Assistant Professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and Vagelos College of Physicians & Surgeons.
Dr. Vasan previously worked at Partners In Health and at the World Health Organization to increase access to HIV/AIDS treatment. He then led the multi-country health systems implementation and research program ARCHeS, based at Columbia Mailman. Vasan was also founding Executive Director of the Health Access Equity Unit at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, where he built the first municipal health department program focused on the intersection of health, clinical systems, and social welfare of marginalized populations.
Dr. Vasan holds a Master of Science degree in Epidemiology from Harvard, his MD from the University of Michigan, and his PhD in Public Health from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. He has published extensively in peer-reviewed journals and appeared in The New York Times, BBC News, and Forbes.
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