Health Clubs Can Play a Role in Mitigating the Mental Health Crisis

One of the most pernicious legacies of the COVID-19 global pandemic is the mental health crisis. It is so severe that it is often referred to as the “parallel pandemic.” Typically, in any given year, 27 percent of the population suffers from some form of diagnosable mental health issue. It is estimated that this percentage is now as high as 40 percent or more now, due to the effects of COVID — and it will only get worse.

Why? Because the two things needed most for sound mental health are connectivity and coping skills. Connectivity refers to the social need of humans to connect with one another. Coping skills refer to practices and techniques that can be employed to maintain sound mental health. Conversely, the two things that lead to mental health issues the most are loneliness and lack of coping skills. Because of the required quarantines and the lack of access to counselors, fitness professionals and other lifestyle coaches, COVID has greatly exacerbated the latter two.

So, what role can health clubs play in mitigating the mental health crisis? Until recently, if you asked most medical professionals that question, they would reply “almost none.” Mental health historically was looked at as a continuum with no or low mental illness at one end, mild forms of mental illness such as mild depression and anxiety in the middle, and high mental illness, in the form of clinically diagnosable diseases such as schizophrenia, psychosis and depression, at the other end. It was thought people moved back and forth on this continuum based on their chemical make-up, physiology and life events. In this model, holistic practices such as exercise, nutrition and healthy lifestyle choices played a small role.

However, the Mental Wellness Initiative of the Global Wellness Institute has developed a Dual Continuum Model of Mental Health. (See below). This new model retained the traditional, horizontal continuum discussed above but also included a vertical model that goes from languishing at the bottom of the continuum to flourishing at the top. People move up and down this vertical continuum based on coping skills they employ to improve their mental wellness no matter what their clinical, pathogenic condition.

In other words, an individual can flourish regardless of their clinical condition if they employ the proper coping skills. Conversely, someone with no clinical mental health condition can languish if they do not have proper coping skills This is especially true during a time of great mental stress such as during the COVID pandemic.

What are some of the coping skills that can be employed? Exercise, proper nutrition, mind-body practices and other holistic and healthy lifestyle choices.

In the Dual Continuum Model of Mental Wellness/Mental Illness, the horizontal axis deals with mental illness/health. It is pathogenic in nature. In other words, it deals with the disease of mental illness. It often requires clinical care and medical intervention. The vertical axis deals with mental wellness/well-being. It is salutogenic in nature. In other words, it deals with the factors that support human health and well-being, rather than the factors that cause disease. It is more focused on self-care and what the individual can do to help improve their sense of well-being. Again, the horizontal continuum deals with health care and is primarily the responsibility of the medical community, while the vertical continuum deals with self-care and is primarily the responsibility of the individual.

Obviously, in the Dual Continuum Model, health clubs and fitness professionals are a critical part of the vertical continuum and play a vital role in helping people go from languishing to flourishing regardless of their actual medically diagnosed condition.

Those of us in the fitness industry need to understand the Dual Continuum Model of Mental Wellness and Mental Illness, as well as the role we play in this approach to the treatment of mental health. More importantly, we need to accept this role and do everything we can to employ programs and services that can help people go from languishing to flourishing.

We also need to come together as a unified industry to promote our role to politicians and policy makers, and to the general public so we are perceived and accepted as an essential part of the health care delivery system — specifically the mental health care delivery system. If we do this effectively, we not only will increase sales, but we also can take advantage of the government funds available for the promotion of mental health and possibly even receive insurance compensation for individuals needing our services for their mental health and well-being.

More importantly, we can provide a service that is greatly needed to help stem the tide of this parallel pandemic. If we don’t, I fear we will continue to be lumped in with bars and restaurants as non-essential entertainment and will be susceptible to being closed down again if and when the next pandemic comes along. The choice is ours.

[Editor’s Note: For more on this topic, watch Victor Brick’s presentation on this topic from the free June 2021 Future of Fitness virtual event.]


C. Victor Brick is the founder and CEO of PF Growth Partners LLC – the largest privately owned Planet Fitness franchisee – and the founder of the John W. Brick Mental Health Foundation. He serves on the Mental Wellness Initiative of the Global Wellness Institute, the board of advisors of the Global Wellness Summit and the board of advisors of Johns Hopkins Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. He may be reached at [email protected].