A prominent celebrity named Stephen “tWitch” Boss of the Ellen DeGeneres Show took his life at 40. Boss’ contagious love of dancing, carefree spirit, and milewide grin brought joy to millions. From the outside looking in, we saw a gentle soul – a successful actor and dancer with a wife and three children.
Just days before his passing, Boss shared a joyful video on social media of him dancing with his wife. His shocking death is yet another sobering reminder that mental illness is a disease that insulates people – even those known and loved by many.
As a practicing physician associate/assistant (PA) for over 20 years, my ever-present fear is that one of my patients or my loved ones is suffering in silence and, like Boss, hiding pain and hurt behind a beautiful and warm exterior. I expect that my colleagues in the health care community share this fear. We continually ask ourselves what more we can do to help break the stigma associated with mental illness to ensure those who are hurting so much are never afraid to seek help.
Today, an estimated 158 million Americans lack adequate mental health care access. The human beings behind this astounding figure are our mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers. Mental illness is a disease that does not discriminate and ravages families and communities across the country. On average, the delay between when a patient first experiences mental illness symptoms and when they receive treatment is an astounding 11 years. We must close this gap – and do so quickly.
In every state across the country, patient demand for mental health services outpaces provider supply. According to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation, many states, including where I reside in Illinois, lag behind the rest of the nation in meeting the behavioral health needs of its residents. To meet the national need, our country needs another 8,000 practitioners. And with the current health care workforce shortage, that won’t happen anytime soon.
However, securing more mental health care workers is not – and cannot be – our only call to action. Our health care workforce must be fully empowered and mobilized to meet the growing demand for mental health services. Every member of today’s modern health care team must be allowed to practice to the full extent of their education, training, and experience, or else we will continue to struggle to meet patients where they are.
With more than 500 million patient interactions annually, America’s PAs have the necessary experience in primary care and many settings, including emergency rooms, to diagnose and treat anxiety, depression, and more severe mental illnesses. However, many patients may not realize they can discuss their mental health concerns with a PA or another care provider outside a mental health care setting. I want all patients to know that all providers, including PAs, are here for you – and we’re listening.
While we recognize there is no single or easy solution to the mental health crisis, we also recognize it is time for each of us to turn words into actions now.
Action starts with each of us! Provider or otherwise, I encourage each of you to take the time to reach out to your colleagues, friends, family, and loved ones. Check on them. Talk to them. Ask them if they are ok.
And on behalf of our patients, our families, our friends, and our communities, I urge policymakers to act now to ensure every health care provider can meet the needs of their patients by being allowed to practice to the fullest extent of their license.
Sometimes, all it takes is one conversation to save one person’s life. We must stop talking about what to do and take action.
Jennifer M. Orozco is a physician assistant.