Health Need for Mental, Substance-Abuse Treatment Increased During COVID

Need for Mental, Substance-Abuse Treatment Increased During COVID

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Suicide rates, overdoses and substance abuse all are on the rise since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new Government Accountability Office report.

Colorado’s community health centers have seen a dramatic increase in patients in need of care.

Jonathan Muther, vice president of medical services for Salud Family Health Centers, which operates 13 clinics serving both rural and metropolitan residents, said before COVID-19, nearly one in five patients presented symptoms of mental illness or substance-use disorder. Since the pandemic, one in three present symptoms, but most cannot access care.

“Even before the pandemic, more than half of the individuals with an identified need did not receive access to care,” Muther recounted. “And that gap has only widened since the pandemic.”

Last week, Muther told members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions his team has responded to the increased need in part by expanding telehealth efforts. But he argued more needs to be done to remove barriers that prevent people from getting care, including lack of adequate health coverage, not knowing where to get help, social stigma, and a lack of non-English-speaking staff.

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Changes in how federally qualified health centers are reimbursed would give more providers the flexibility to meet people in need of care where they are.

Muther pointed to Salud’s integrated approach to care, where people get mental-health screenings whenever they check in with their primary-care provider, vision specialist or dentist.

“We structurally embed a behavioral-health visit in the context of the medical visit, whether that’s in person or via telehealth,” Muther explained. “We have behavioral-health providers that just do a proactive outreach to individuals in order to recognize a mental-health concern as early as possible and be able to do something about it.”

Adults are most likely to reveal symptoms, which can include increased anxiety or depression, but also physical manifestations such as chronic head or stomach aches, to their doctor.

Muther added getting more mental-health professionals into schools can help reach children. Clinics have also successfully reached patients who don’t get regular checkups through targeted outreach.

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