Will National Spotlight on Mental Health Help RI?

Jun 4, 2013

President Barack Obama kicked off the National Conference on Mental Health yesterday. But can a conference actually accomplish anything? Too soon to tell.

What we do know is that it's an attempt to make good on the president's commitment to address mental health issues in the wake of the Newtown tragedy. Given our nation's and Rhode Island's substantial mental health problems (Rhode Island's suicide rates and drug overdose rates being among the highest in the country), I'm delighted to see more attention paid to the issues.

The president has called for earlier mental health screening for kids, more resources for health care providers, and awareness campaigns to help reduce the stigma around mental illness.

So, will all the podium speeches, public commitments to do something, celebrity videos, and more break down the antiquated stigma and silence that still surround mental illness (including addiction)? It depends, I guess, on the follow through, and the teeth (and funding) in those commitments.

That said, here are a few trends I find very positive for mental health healing and awareness, nationally and here in Rhode Island:

- In Rhode Island, I'm seeing more efforts to integrate primary care (your everyday doctor visit) with mental health care, the idea being to treat the whole person and connect him or her to all the care he or she needs in a one-stop-shopping kind of way. Lifespan's new partnership with mental health services provider Gateway comes to mind, as do the efforts of The Providence Center, and the trend among patient-centered medical homes to incorporate social workers and mental health providers into their primary care practices.

- Perhaps we'll see more money for mental health services in Rhode Island. This January 2013 article in Stateline (the Pew Charitable Trusts' daily news service) speculated that one of the best hopes for more funding might just be through the impending Medicaid expansion, thanks to Obamacare.  Craig Stenning, director of Rhode Island’s Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals told Stateline:

"...his state is also undertaking programs to better identify the early signs of mental illness in young people and to get them into effective treatment. He notes that the Medicaid expansion in his state is going to enable it to shift more resources into housing, employment and education programs related to keeping those with mental illness stable. This last effort, he says, wouldn’t have been possible if Rhode Island hadn’t chosen to opt into the expansion."

- There's a new emphasis I'm seeing among those who live with mental illness - including addiction - to "come out," to share their experiences and hope, to talk about recovery. The goal? Reduce stigma. Get people talking about it. The evidence: in concert with the national conference, the Whitehouse launched a new website, mentalhealth.gov, which aims to raise awareness about mental health and connect people to resources, complete with video testimonies from the famous and non-famous alike. Also at the conference, the National Association of Broadcasters committed to (according to a statement from the Whitehouse):

"...creating a national public service campaign to reduce the stigma around mental illness. The multiplatform campaign, launching this summer, will include TV and radio ads, online ads and resources and a robust social media platform to raise awareness – specifically among 13-24 year olds, their friends and caregivers – that it’s okay to talk about mental health and help is available."

That's just a sampling of some of the more positive trends in mental health care and awareness. Look for more as more people get health insurance--including some coverage for mental health--under the Affordable Care Act. But in some ways, these efforts are just a beginning, especially considering Rhode Island's particular struggles.

Here's Obama speaking at the National Conference on Mental Health: