COLUMN: It’s time to improve behavioral health care | Opinion

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The first week of October marked Mental Health Awareness Week, and for a few days we collectively watched the crisis laid bare by the ongoing fallout of COVID-19: access to mental health care is difficult at best; for marginalized and underserved communities, this can be next to impossible.

Dr. Jeffrey Geller, co-chair of the nonprofit Integrated Center for Group Medical Visiting (ICGMV), a national leader in the group medical care model with strong roots in Lawrence, said he and his staff frequently see a high number of patients who need mental health care but simply cannot find it.

“Participants in our group walk into our clinic unable to sleep at night for fear of disaster, they talk about sleeping on friends’ couches, giving up on their dreams of higher education, having lost everything and ‘to have lost loved ones,’ he said.

Better access to mental and behavioral health care has always been essential. But vital public discussions that have recently begun to weaken the stigma surrounding mental illness, combined with an increase in demand for post-COVID care, have created a new environment for reflection and reform.

We have been encouraged in recent weeks by increased calls for behavioral health funding and investments in local care systems, by pressure from state regulators on health plans to cover more mental health services , and conversations that aim to improve measures to strengthen the pipeline industry workforce, which is facing post-pandemic burnout and attrition. (According to an Oct. 11 report from the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association, North Boston hospitals reported the second-highest number of patients in the state “interned” in emergency rooms (116) awaiting placement. psychiatry. And this is largely due to lack of personnel.)

And while raising awareness of this bubbling crisis was indeed a key first step in reversing it, we must now seek ways to act collaboratively to ensure that access to mental health care is easier and more widely available. . But this work must be accompanied by measures to continuously examine the social, political and economic instability that can often lead to the despair of so many of our friends and neighbors – our children, our educators, our health care workers and underprivileged populations. served.

Organizations across Essex County are doing just that.

At the Integrated Group Medical Visiting Center, Dr. Geller hires a psychologist and clinical social worker, who will provide behavioral health services under the organization’s group model.

“By having group mental health services, there can be more people receiving support and treatment than by just having individual visits,” he said.

Salem-based nonprofit Lifebridge employs a community health navigator, who will address the lack of health care for homeless residents. Pettengill House in Salisbury is embarking on a similar scheme. The Northshore Education Consortium in Beverly is expanding Connections, its comprehensive service program for students and families with substance use disorders and mental health issues, to move away from historic punitive repercussions in public schools. Greater Lynn Senior Services is developing programs within its Phoenix Food Hub to address the link between dietary insufficiency and behavioral health. Each of these nonprofits works in collaboration with other organizations – schools, hospitals, municipalities, community health centers, businesses and more – to build a sustainable support system.

The Essex County Community Foundation recently invested philanthropic dollars in these and other programs through our Behavioral Partnerships Grant Program, a funding partnership between ECCF’s COVID-19 Response Fund, the Peter and Elizabeth C. Tower Foundation, the Evelyn Lily Lutz Foundation, the North Shore Community Health Network and other anonymous donors. Almost $600,000 in total funds have been awarded.

This winter, in collaboration with the North Shore Community Health Network and Congressman Seth Moulton, the ECCF will launch a second round of Behavioral Health Partnership Grants. This new funding round will specifically address behavioral health workforce issues, and their design is the result of continuous learning and review of an evolving system.

Our goal with all of these grants is to encourage the collaboration essential to bringing about innovative and lasting changes in local behavioral health systems – changes that not only expand immediate access to care, but take shape in the organizations that s also attack the problems of poverty. , hunger, homelessness and other inequalities that affect the health of thousands of Essex County residents.

And there is an appetite in Essex County to do this work together. A recent behavioral health think tank hosted by the ECCF brought together 120 stakeholders – all eager to connect, brainstorm collaborative solutions and form cross-sector partnerships that will ultimately bridge health gaps. a system that currently does not provide equitable care.

Those silver linings—that will to come together—signify that now is the time for a change. As public discourse continues to simultaneously legitimize and de-stigmatize mental health, we must also continue to harness the strength and power that comes with collaboration. Share your ideas. Advocate for federal, state and local funding. Support the work of nonprofits and organizations seeking equitable solutions. Spread news of new fundraising and collective action opportunities.

Together, we can create the healthcare system Essex County needs and deserves.

Carol Lavoie Schuster is the ECCF’s Vice President for Nonprofit Programs and Services. Michelle Xiarhos Curran is the foundation’s communications editor.

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