Organizations wise to pair behavioral health care with community health, well-being expert says

June 2020

June 11, 2020

What's the most important step health systems can take to flatten anticipated ripple effects on mental health and emotional well-being after the COVID-19 pandemic?

"Within your organization, we encourage you to get people thinking about community health along with your behavioral health teams," said Deryk Van Brunt, co-founder and chief executive director of the digital platform CredibleMind, which offers resources on mental health, emotional well-being and spiritual growth.

The topics of behavioral health and community health are rarely considered together, Van Brunt said. "A public health community-based approach is not focused on mental health, and behavioral teams are more clinically focused," he said, but noted that the two teams working together can result in "productive conversations" and "wonderful synergies."

Van Brunt teaches health informatics at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health, and conducts research in the area of individual and community health information systems. He also is president and chief executive of the Healthy Communities Foundation, a nonprofit organization.

Along with Dr. Jonathan Adler, co-editor in chief at CredibleMind and an emergency physician in Boston, Van Brunt spoke June 3 at the fourth and final session of "Our Well-Being: A Webinar Series Sharing Wellness Resources." Dennis Gonzales, senior director, mission innovation and integration for CHA, facilitated the series. CHA members can access recordings of the webinars and handouts on the CHA website.

CHA launched the series in May to share workforce wellness practices of members and trusted wellness resources, practices and programs "to help all involved in Catholic health care identify and address their immediate needs, as well as the post-COVID reality."

Van Brunt began by stating that the mental health system in place in the U.S. is broken. "Not the people in the system — but the system is not producing what it needs to," he said, a situation that has led to "excess costs, lost productivity and suffering." Then Van Brunt and Adler described a growing crisis in mental health and emotional distress in the U.S. and noted that COVID-19 has exacerbated that crisis.

The concerning statistics they cited included:

  • A 15-20% increase in rates of depression and anxiety over the past decade.
  • Only 17% of U.S. adults are considered to be in an optimal mental health state.
  • Some 111 million people live in a Mental Health Care Health Professional Shortage Area.
  • Before the pandemic it was estimated that some 250,000 more behavioral health professionals were needed to meet the demand over the next five years

Van Brunt said the COVID-19 pandemic has made the need urgent now, but there is no short-term solution. "So we need to think outside the box, and ask what can we do to address this crisis."

Adler presented troubling information regarding mental health issues that specifically affect health care workers, including:

  • A doubled risk of unsafe care and unprofessional behaviors. Some 50% of physicians and 35% of nurses report symptoms of burnout.
  • More than 40% of hospital staff nurses score in the high range for job-related burnout and 20% say they intend to leave their hospital job within one year.
  • Some 300-400 practicing physicians die by suicide each year.
  • Physicians reporting symptoms of burnout are twice as likely to have suicidal ideation; and some 23% percent of physicians have had suicidal thoughts.

"These statistics are real, the impact is real and now the situation is amplified by the additional stress of the work environment," Adler said.

Convened by the Healthy Communities Foundation in 2018, CredibleMind was created as an "upstream mechanism to transform how communities and organizations support the mental health and emotional well-being of their constituents." The goal, Van Brunt said, was to develop a "population-based mental health platform" that would make the experience of seeking help for mental distress simpler and also "destigmatize the seeking of help."

Early on, it was clear to those at CredibleMind that there was a need to "work upstream," before signs of mental distress manifest and worsen. Van Brunt noted that cardiologists routinely do this, working to prevent heart disease and to identify people at risk. "In the mental health world, we have not made the same gains," he said. "It's more of a reactive health care system."

Van Brunt added that the average time a person spends working on their mental health issues before seeking help is from three to 17 years. Working "upstream," he said, "is not trying to catch something after six months, but to reduce years of pain and suffering."

Coverage of prior webinars in this series
SCL Health shares tools it offers for employee mental health
SSM Health put its staff wellness plan into high gear to cope with pandemic stress
Caregivers ride emotional roller coaster from heroic wins to devastating loss

» View the webinar recording (member log-in required)

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