IDPH director to deliver keynote at UChicago symposium on adolescent mental health

Sameer Vohra will speak at the Center for Chronic Disease Research and Policy’s 11th Annual Research Symposium on October 30.

“The healthiest life possible is physical, mental, and social. That has driven me my entire career,” said Sameer Vohra (MA’15), Director of the Illinois Department of Public Health. Trained in medicine, law, and public policy, Vohra’s career to date offers a uniquely broad perspective on public health.

Now, he is bringing that experience back to his alma mater as the keynote speaker for the University of Chicago Center for Chronic Disease Research and Policy’s 11th Annual Research Symposium: Strengthening Adolescent Mental Health and Health Policy on October 30. Vohra’s lecture, “The State of Illinois’s Adolescent Health: An Illinois Department of Public Health Update,” will focus on mental health challenges after the COVID-19 public health emergency.

Vohra’s health care career is rooted locally. He earned a Master of Arts in public policy from the Harris School of Public Policy and completed his medical residency in pediatrics at UChicago as the first medical resident on the pediatrics and public policy track. He holds medical and law degrees from the University of Southern Illinois and studied political science and science in human culture as an undergraduate at Northwestern University.

In addition to his current role at IDPH, Vohra has previously served on the Illinois State Board of Health, the Illinois Medicaid Advisory Committee, the Governor’s Rural Affairs Council, the Illinois COVID-19 Response Fund Steering Committee as well as national committees for the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Association of American Medical Colleges, the American Medical Association, and on the Board of Trustees for the Illinois State Medical Society and Chicago Medical Society. Prior to assuming the directorship of IDPH, Vohra was the Interim Chair of the Children’s Mental Health Partnership, the Founding Chair of the Department of Population Science and Policy and Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Public Health, Medical Humanities, and Law at the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine in Springfield, Illinois.

Building the brightest futures for Illinois residents

When Illinois Governor JB Pritzker appointed Vohra to the IDPH leadership in 2022, he said, “Dr. Vohra is accomplished in every sense of the word. His experience and education transcend sectors and fields … [He is] laser-focused on our most vulnerable populations, especially our youth. To say he is a committed public servant would be an understatement.”

“As director of the IDPH, my goal is to improve and build the brightest futures for all our residents across the state of Illinois. That starts with our children and adolescents,” Vohra said.

Citing recent data, he describes the present day as a time of profound mental health challenges for children, adolescents, and their caregivers. “I saw the challenges my patients and their families faced and how much mental health was at the core of what they needed to address to lead the healthiest, most productive lives,” he said, noting that the problem is nationwide. “Forty-four percent of high school students in 2021 reported feeling persistently sad or hopeless, and half the adults ages 18 to 24 reported anxiety and depression symptoms in 2023,” he said.

Though he acknowledges that “part of what we’re seeing is how the COVID-19 public health emergency was the capstone of an adolescent mental health crisis we’re seeing across the country,” Vohra describes the pandemic as a contributing factor among more persistent problems, including social media use, bullying, and other emotional challenges.

“Mental health is increasingly central to how we think of public health,” he said, noting that the 2021 US Surgeon General’s report on youth mental health was the “first of its kind.” The 53-page advisory describes youth mental health as an “urgent public health issue” and lists risk factors, names groups at higher risk for mental health problems, and offers recommendations and resources for youths, caregivers, educators, medical practitioners, media, technological companies, community organizations, funders, employers, and governments. 

“At the core of [treating youth mental health] is not just making sure we have the treatment available, which is critically and crucially important, but thinking about it in a true public health sense, which means figuring out the right partners, making sure we think about the root causes of the social and structural challenges children face, and making sure we have a prevention lens,” Vohra said.

Health as the great unifier

“It’s an incredible honor to come back to the University of Chicago,” he says. “My training at the University led to incredible collaborations with the Harris School of Public Policy and the Crown School of Social Work, along with leaders across the medical center in pediatrics and other disciplines. I’ve always had a passion for how health can and should be a great unifier across a vast array of social issues. In order for us to improve health, health has to be thought about for all policies.”

“I was driven to understand how much pursuing a career in a health profession could make a life-altering impact, but I also felt that law and public policy allow you to make those changes at scale and make changes across big groups of people,” he continued. “We really have to connect individual aspects of what makes medicine so meaningful with the social changes that are required both in and outside of health care settings. Those are issues that need to be solved by the right laws and the right policy.”

“I’m a firm believer that in order for us to improve public health, it must be done as a partnership between the state, academic leaders, community members, and the residents we’re trying to serve,” he said. “One thing I appreciate about a symposium like this is how we can talk about what the state is doing but also the ways the state can better serve residents in these communities. We know how big and complicated this issue is, and I look forward to listening and learning as much as I look forward to presenting information on our state goals and this crucially important issue.

We need many diverse perspectives, and we as a state need to be as inclusive as possible to get those perspectives to achieve our goals of health equity and achieving the brightest futures for all our residents.”

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