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Opinion: Mental health 2023: Impactful projects must be priority

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You might remember in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic – before it even was a pandemic – me talking extensively, every day, about flattening the COVID curve in my role with the Springfield-Greene County Health Department. Thankfully, by working collaboratively, our community has survived the worst of the pandemic.

Today, in a new role, I’m talking about the mental health curve of COVID, which I feel confident is now here.

Read any medical journal, newspaper or study on school-age youth, and you’ll notice one trend very quickly: The public demand for services from mental health providers has never been higher. The National Council for Mental Wellbeing says the average wait time to receive behavioral health services is around six weeks, with the wait for some specialty services much longer. Late last year, The Washington Post wrote about an 880-person-deep wait list for psychiatric services at one Massachusetts hospital. Nearly 60% of centers like Burrell Behavioral Health are experiencing both excessive wait lists and workforce challenges. In Springfield, you may have heard complaints about wait times to get into Burrell. This is a national problem, but the impacts of national problems are always felt locally.

While this may feel like a no-win situation, there is a silver lining: It does appear that the stigma surrounding mental health is dissipating, and more people are accessing the care they need. But increased demand creates capacity challenges, and community mental health will need to rise up and meet this challenge.

In Missouri, we are already rising to it, thanks to the vision of national, state and local leaders and an organizational commitment to access and quality. Locally, for example, we are indebted to the city of Springfield and the Springfield Police Department for their investment and partnership in our recently expanded Crisis & Resource Line (through a 2022 American Rescue Plan Act allocation) and the SPD’s Mobile Response Unit, where a behavioral health professional rides along with officers on appropriate calls.

During the 2022 state legislative session, Burrell was grateful to have received funding for capital improvements to a number of our facilities statewide, which will include a major renovation of the flagship building on the main campus on East Bradford Parkway. We also plan an expansion of the Marshfield Clinic.

More impact is on the way. We owe sincere gratitude to the Greene County Commission, which awarded $5 million in ARPA funding to establish a Youth Resiliency Campus – the teen corollary to our adult Behavioral Crisis Center – in north Springfield. We are very close to announcing an official location and breaking ground on a facility that will operate as a 24/7 rapid-access location for youth 12-17 (and eventually younger), offering stabilization and connection to inpatient and outpatient services as needed. As with our adult BCC, this facility would not be possible without Greene County making mental health a priority for its citizens. Gov. Mike Parson’s 2022 budget allocated an additional $1 million-plus to this project.

But a crisis center – a front door to care – is only the beginning of what’s needed to fully address our mental health crisis. To realize the full potential of this campus, including longer-term youth residential services, clinical training space and a hub for home-based providers in an underserved part of our city, we continue to seek funding sources and provide our own capital to meet the need.

The point of this column is certainly not to brag or beg, but rather to illustrate the enormity of the need and the drastic shift in the mental health landscape over the last several years. The total U.S. expenditure on mental health services grew by 52% to roughly $225 billion between 2009 and 2019, according to health and human services firm Open Minds, and that doesn’t account for the post-COVID surge. Community safety net providers are critical to the health and well-being of our citizens; we are grateful to our leaders, at all levels, for recognizing that fact and helping us, once again, flatten a curve for our community.

Clay Goddard is the Southwest Region president of Brightli, parent company of Burrell Behavioral Health. He can be reached at clay.goddard@burrellcenter.com.

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