It’s a strange twist, but true.
A surge in behavioral health demand caused by the pandemic has a silver lining. For years, behavioral health resources have been scarce, demand far outstripping supply everywhere. But the pandemic intensified the demand and urgency of behavioral health care so much that it’s at last become too big to ignore. New conversations are starting to happen about how to help all these people who need clinical treatment programs.
The term “behavioral health” encompasses two huge, stigma-laden struggles in America today: mental health and substance use. Neither topic is one people tend to be comfortable talking about openly, though research shows most Americans know someone struggling with mental illness or addiction, and at least one in five people experiences mental or substance use disorders each year.
Conversations about your or your loved ones’ mental health, alcohol, or drug use can be hard, but we must normalize open conversation about them.
Worldwide, pandemic stress triggered a 25% increase in depression and anxiety, according to the World Health Organization. Meanwhile, U.S. overdose deaths have been at an all-time high each of the past two years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data, U.S. overdose deaths in 2021 surpassed 107,000, up from 74,000 in 2019. Arkansas Children’s Hospital last fall reported a 150% increase in mental health visits to their emergency department over pre-pandemic years. And 38% of adult Arkansans reported in 2021 that they were suffering from depression or anxiety.
It’s time for solutions. Fortunately, that’s what we see starting to happen. You may have noticed: more families, employers, news outlets, health care entities and policymakers are finally talking about what needs to be done in this field and how to do it. In Arkansas, one such emerging solution is UAMS’s AR ConnectNow, a 24/7 helpline for people wanting to schedule a free visit with a therapist—no insurance required.
Physical and behavioral health are inextricably linked. Behavioral health, in fact, drives total health; it’s a necessary foundation for healthy living. When one bodily system is suffering, others are more easily compromised.
The CDC says mental health patients are at higher risk of developing serious illnesses like diabetes, heart disease and stroke. Similarly, people with chronic disease are at higher risk of developing mental or drug use disorders. People with chronic pain can become addicted to painkillers, people with alcoholism may suffer from severe anxiety and people who are in a clinical depression so deep they can’t get out of bed are likely not seeking preventive care and making healthy choices. Likewise, people addicted to controlled substances have their bodies physically ravaged by addiction.
Untreated behavioral health needs bleed into the social realm, wreaking destruction on patients’ personal and professional lives. Employees struggling with substance use disorders or mental health often have reduced job performance—their productivity, creativity and morale all take hits.
And more than most other conditions, mental illness and substance abuse affect far more people than just the primary patient. They can hurt everyone in their wake. The flip side is treating mental disorders and addiction can stabilize families in immediate and lasting ways.
It all ties together.
In developing solutions to the chronic problems of access and affordability, we must also focus on the quality of the care and the patient experience. To treat people effectively, we need to shift from silos of care to prioritizing “whole-person care,” a treatment model that factors in the links between mental, social and physical health and seeks to integrate care holistically across disciplines. Such collaborative care can improve the patient’s health, increase communication among providers and reduce conflicting treatments and prescriptions.
We also need to create options that are accessible and affordable for Arkansans even in remote rural areas, keeping behavioral health patients’ logistic barriers in mind. Health care systems and tools can be famously difficult for anyone to navigate. Already operating at a functional deficit, behavioral health patients require tools that are clear and simple to use, and that quickly help them find the information they are seeking.
Get invested in the dream
One of the first ways to improve our state’s behavioral health shortcomings is to improve the benefits offered to working Arkansans. We recommend this to employers not simply for the sake of your employees and their families, but to strengthen your workforce and improve their job performance. Of course, healthier people tend to have lower healthcare costs long term, too.
Wouldn’t it be refreshing to live somewhere that had ample resources for people struggling with behavioral health? Where getting effective treatment for a family member’s manic episodes or their dependence on controlled substances didn’t feel insurmountable? Solving these issues would create a healthier Arkansas. Our citizens, community, workforce, society, economy and quality of life could flourish if we had adequate resources and support structures for people needing behavioral healthcare.
That’s our dream and our goal. We are not going to get there this year, or next. But if we together prioritize behavioral health access, affordability, quality and experience now when the need is so high, we can start filling a great need.
Together, we can be champions for behavioral health services in Arkansas and for the people they serve.