COLUMN: Now is the time to improve behavioral healthcare | opinion

The first week of October was Mental Health Awareness Week and for a few days we observed together the crisis exposed by the ongoing fallout from COVID-19: access to mental health care is challenging at best; For marginalized and underserved communities, this can be nearly impossible.

dr Jeffrey Geller, co-chair of the nonprofit Integrated Center for Group Medical Visits (ICGMV), a national leader in the group medical care model with strong roots in Lawrence, said he and his staff frequently see large numbers of patients in need of psychiatric care but just can’t find it.

“Our group members come to our clinic and cannot sleep at night for fear of disaster. They talk about sleeping on friends’ couches, giving up dreams to graduate school, losing everything and losing loved ones,” he said.

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

We have been heartened in recent weeks by increased calls for behavioral health funding and investment in local care systems, by pressure from government regulators on health plans to cover more mental health services, and talks aimed at improving measures to strengthen the sector’s workforce pipeline , which is facing burnout and attrition in the wake of the pandemic. (According to an Oct. 11 report by the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association, hospitals north of Boston reported the second-highest number of patients in the state “boarding” emergency rooms (116) while awaiting psychiatric admissions. And that’s largely the case due to staff shortages.)

And while raising awareness of this simmering crisis was indeed an important first step to turning it around, we must now look at ways we can collectively take action to ensure that access to mental health care is easier and more widely available. But this work must be done in parallel with efforts to continually investigate the social, political, and economic instability that can often exasperate so many of our friends and neighbors—our children, educators, health care workers, and underserved populations.

Across Essex County, organizations are doing just that.

At the Integrated Center for Medical Group Visits, Dr. Geller is hiring a psychologist and a clinical social worker who will provide behavioral health services as part of the organization’s group model.

“Through group mental health services, more people can receive support and treatment than when there are only 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 programme. Beverly’s Northshore Education Consortium is expanding Connections, its full-service program for students and families experiencing substance abuse and mental health problems, to break away from the historical punitive impact on public schools. Greater Lynn Senior Services is developing programs within its Phoenix Food Hub to address the link between nutritional deficiencies and behavioral health. Each and every one of these nonprofits works with other organizations—schools, hospitals, communities, community health centers, businesses, and more—to strengthen a sustainable support system.

The Essex County Community Foundation has recently invested philanthropic dollars in these and other programs through our Behavioral Partnerships Grants 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. A total of nearly $600,000 in grants were awarded.

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

Our goal with all of these grants is to encourage the collaboration that is critical to making innovative, lasting changes in local behavioral health systems—changes that not only expand immediate access to care, but also take shape in organizations that are also addressing issues of poverty, hunger, homelessness and other injustices that affect the health of thousands of Essex County residents.

And in Essex County, there is a desire to do this work together. A recent Behavioral Health Think Lab hosted by the ECCF brought together 120 stakeholders – all eager to network, devise collaborative solutions and form cross-sector partnerships that will ultimately fill the gaps in a system that currently fails to provide equitable care.

That silver lining—that willingness to come together—suggests that the time is right for change. As public discourse continues to simultaneously legitimize and destigmatize mental health, we must continue to harness the strength and power that comes with working together. Share your ideas. Representation of interests for federal, state and municipal funding. Support the work of non-profit organizations and organizations seeking equitable solutions. Spread the word about new opportunities for funding and collective action.

Together we can create the care system that Essex County needs and deserves.

Carol Lavoie Schuster is ECCF Vice President for Programs and Community Services. Michelle Xiarhos Curran is the Foundation’s communications writer.

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