Imagine being afraid that your employer will find out you had cancer. Now also consider what it would be like if there were stigmas attached to common medical conditions such as heart disease. Luckily, for many with these physical illnesses they do not face the fear of stereotypes and stigmas while also seeking treatment for their conditions. However, for many with another type of physical illness, this is the reality. Mental health disorders are medical conditions that are just as common as many physical ailments. These conditions can affect anyone, at any time, and be just as debilitating. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we lived in a country that values mental health just as much as it does physical health? An environment where mental illnesses can be discussed openly without shame, and major insurance companies understood the vital importance of covering its treatment services? Historically, people tend to divide the world of mental health from physical health – but science tells us the body does not do that. It is intimately linked and has significant effects on each other. Integrating behavioral health with physical health care is a way to bridge that gap and provide services to treat the whole person.
Integrated health care blends medical with mental health services into one setting. Mental health providers placed in the primary care setting work together with primary care providers to help manage the patient’s overall health. The practice can offer easily accessible treatment when psychiatric conditions are identified, as well as offer case management opportunities to address challenges such as poverty, family stresses and housing insecurities that primary care providers are limited to assist with.
It is important that we set aside mental health stigmas and understand that behavioral health conditions are extremely common. They can affect you, or someone you care about at any time. In fact, in the United States, 46% of adults (approximately 1 in 5) will experience a mental illness during their lifetime. Studies have shown that these mental health issues can have significant impacts on a person’s physical health. When we are not caring for our mental health, not only will our behavioral symptoms likely worsen, but they also have the potential to exacerbate any medical conditions. Blending mental and physical health treatment results in care that is not only truly comprehensive but can also simplify access to various treatments for everyone.
We already know that a large majority of people have regular visits to their primary care physicians. They are our front-line gatekeepers to access treatment for a variety of different disorders, which can often include mental health treatment. Studies show 50% of all behavioral health disorders are treated in the primary care setting, and 80% of people with a diagnosable mental illness will visit their primary care provider at least once a year. When we integrate mental and physical health, it creates an ideal opportunity to increase patient compliance for treatment, as well their overall care satisfaction. Without implementing this whole person treatment approach, we continue to perpetuate the overburden stress on the primary health care providers, as well as the overall health care system.
Unfortunately, this successfully proven health care model is still uncommon. Society continues to perpetuate a belief of shame and secrets surrounding mental health issues. We owe it to ourselves and those we care about to help decrease these stereotypes. We can encourage federal and state governments to increase incentives for behavioral and medical health providers to create collaborations which address our communities’ unique needs. If you are a current health care provider who has implemented integration, share your experiences and successes with others in your profession to help foster the growth of integration!
Incorporating behavioral health into primary care can produce exciting opportunities for all of us. Research on health care integration, combined with decades of firsthand experience has proven that providing integrated care to treat the whole person is essential. When we collectively voice our desire for health care integration, we can further a health care movement that has the potential to improve entire community health outcomes.
United Counseling Service (UCS) is a private, non-profit community mental health center that has played an essential part of Bennington County’s integrated healthcare system since 1958. UCS has mental health clinicians located in many schools and Primary Care Offices throughout Bennington County. For more information about UCS visit www.ucsvt.org or call 802.442.5491.
Katie Aiken is the Family Services Intake Coordinator with UCS Youth and Family Service Division and a Graduate Student of Social Work at Our Lady of the Lake University.