Beyond awareness, we need to drive change in mental health 

While 1 in 5 Americans live with a mental illness and almost half of U.S. adults will experience one during their lifetime, the events of the past several weeks remind us that raising awareness around mental health is critical for everyone. While it’s hard to look into the future in the middle of a crisis, 2020 has the opportunity to be remembered for more than just the year of the modern global pandemic. This can be the year that the world recognizes that mental health impacts us all and the tremendous need to make investments promoting access to quality mental wellness resources for everyone.

For those of us working in the field, we know too well the shortcomings of mental health care in the country. Despite significant gains that have been made in integrating behavioral health and physical health care, we still have a very long way to go.

More than a decade since passing mental health parity laws, there are ongoing challenges with disparities between physical health and mental health services. The issues are compounded by mental health clinicians remaining predominantly siloed from physical health providers combined with an overall lack of mental health professionals across the board. This creates significant challenges with accessing care and finding affordable care within managed care networks. Finally, for all the advances in evidence-based mental health treatments, care is still delivered without leveraging advancements in technology that offers insight into a patient’s condition and can help to proactively identify the people that could benefit the most.

While we are in the midst of a pandemic unlike anything we’ve witnessed in our lifetime, we are also at the precipice of an equally significant behavioral health crisis, which was escalating far before the pandemic started. This is where we have a chance to turn what could otherwise be a dark time, into a period of hope, inspiration, and growth. The silver lining is, thanks to COVID-19, we are already responding to this crisis by fixing pieces of our broken system and building a new paradigm.

In just a short time, the current crisis has turned the health care system on its head. For policymakers, this meant authorizing and expanding ways that providers can get reimbursed for delivering care. For behavioral health professionals, this meant quickly integrating telehealth and remote monitoring solutions, which are critical to continue care for vulnerable patients, who were suddenly placed at an even higher risk due to social isolation mandates and increased anxiety about the virus, among other stressors. While this situation has caused disruption and confusion throughout the system, there lies an opportunity to evolve and come out of this hardship stronger and better equipped to address not only our new reality, but also the reality that existed for years before.

To carry this momentum, we need continued support, innovation, and investment from the entire health care ecosystem. It is imperative that we call on mental health professionals, health care administrators, government and academic institutions, payers, and all stakeholders to seize this moment and make changes that will tackle the needs of today and tomorrow. We need programs and policies that are designed to benefit both patients and providers, and that not just fill the gap, but fully close it.

The time to act is now, and we can all play a part in driving change. That might mean writing a letter to your representatives in government or your insurance company. If you are a health care provider, you can incorporate new technology or develop improved workflows that integrate mental health care. If you are a mental health professional, you can build bridges with community partners to serve a broader population. If you are a policymaker, you can advocate for changes that promote equality and fair access to mental health services.

Together, let us create a new system that will help carry us through these challenging times and into a brighter, happier, and healthier future — where mental health resources are available to all who need them.

Chris Stoudt is a behavioral health specialist, NeuroFlow.

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