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Opinion: Navigating behavioral health care in a post-stigma world

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Last edited 12:15 p.m., May 21, 2019

I was recently talking with a member of my wife’s family about a concerning abdominal symptom she was experiencing. She said it had been occurring all week and that she scheduled an appointment to see her physician.

“I just need to be sure everything is OK,” she told me.

“How would your sense of urgency change if this was something related to depression, anxiety or thoughts of wanting to hurt yourself?” I asked her.

After a short pause, she said, “I would have waited until those things passed.”

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and with it comes an opportunity to engage in more conversations like this one and to check in on the mental well-being of our friends, family members, co-workers and loved ones.

Unfortunately, attitudes like that of my family member are still all too common when it comes to mental health. We discount the seriousness of our symptoms, or excuse them as simply “a stage.”

In fact, nearly 60% of adults in need of mental health care never actively seek services, and children regularly do not receive treatment for up to six to eight years following an initial presentation of symptoms. Even with mental health becoming an increasingly common topic of conversation, our society continues to approach mental health care with trepidation and misperceptions.

Why? I wish the answers were easy. But there are answers, and we're working to find them every single day.

Overcoming stigma
False beliefs and negative attitudes about mental illness have existed as long as treatments have been offered. This negativity is compounded by the movies we see, the politics we follow and the misinformation that is often provided.

For example, there is, in general, a very weak correlation between almost all mental health diagnostic classes and aggression. However, following a high-profile, public act of violence, the conversation regarding mental health treatment temporarily erupts. The individuals responsible are often described as crazy or even psychotic. What peaceful, law-abiding person wants to be lumped into a category as crazy or psychotic along with a mass killer?

Certainly no one wants to be seen as “mental” by our family or friends. Words are important because they form the impressions and opinions we have of individuals struggling with behavioral health symptoms. Let’s think carefully about the words we choose.

Although the public perception of behavioral health services certainly has  changed over the past few years, generally only 20% of the population ever accesses treatment. This means that nearly 80% of our community has never utilized mental health services. Conversely, 80% of Americans have had contact with a health care professional in the past year.

Creating access
Beyond the negative stigma, access has long been a problem.

We have all heard horror stories of individuals waiting six to nine months to see a psychiatrist because urgent care clinics for behavioral health services have not existed. The service model has shifted. Today’s customer expects care when they need it and where they want it.

For this reason, Burrell now has a walk-in clinic, maintains a 24/7 crisis line, is exploring online chatting and provides convenient telehealth services. We will soon offer a single phone number to call for all scheduling needs.

It is hard to overstate how big a role technology will play, as services have evolved beyond any one treatment approach, dependent on a single provider or intervention. For a great example, visit MyStrength.com and use the password “BurrellCommunitySW” for free access on us.

Growing workforce
There is presently a behavioral health workforce shortage impacting the ability for most health care agencies to offer comprehensive services.

Fortunately, statewide Community Mental Health Centers offer competent services by individuals with all levels of education. Additionally, there is substantial evidence that individuals who have been through recovery for a mental health issue or substance use, who serve as peers to others struggling with similar symptoms, are extremely effective. Burrell employs such peer recovery specialists, who play a vital role in ensuring clients are engaged and supported in their journey.

In the end, our jobs won’t be finished until there is no such thing as a “mental health patient,” but rather an individual seeking specialized services – just as they would for a heart, a knee or their teeth – at the moment they suspect something is amiss.

We can get there. This month, I challenge you to start a conversation that will help.

C.J. Davis is the president andCEO of Burrell Behavioral Health. He can be reached at cj.davis@burrellcenter.com.

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