This week, Real World Health Care brings you an interview with Paul Gionfriddo, president and CEO of Mental Health America (MHA), the nation’s oldest mental health advocacy organization. MHA promotes mental health as a critical part of overall wellness, including prevention services for all; early identification and intervention for those at risk; and integrated care, services and support for those who need it, with recovery as the goal.
Since 1949, MHA and its affiliates across the country have led the observance of May is Mental Health Month by reaching millions of people through the media, local events and screenings. This year’s theme is Whole Body Mental Health, focusing on increasing understanding of how the body’s various systems impact mental health based on recent research.
We spoke about MHA’s B4Stage4 philosophy, the importance of behavioral health screenings, and the challenges facing patients and providers who are coping with behavioral health problems associated with chronic illnesses.
Behavioral Health Screening
Real World Health Care: What is the significance of MHA’s B4Stage4 philosophy?
Paul Gionfriddo: Until recently, mental illnesses were the only chronic diseases for which society waited for a public safety problem to manifest itself before action was taken. It was only once a person posed a threat to himself or to others that intervention was initiated. And that intervention usually involved police, lawyers, judges, and often, incarceration. We would never consider waiting until other chronic diseases like cancer, heart disease or MS reached Stage 4 to intervene, but we did with mental health diseases.
Mental illnesses are not simply public safety issues. They are chronic health conditions and should be treated as such. B4Stage4 is a call for everyone in society to look at the early warning signs for mental health problems and to act earlier in making health care decisions that will best promote recovery.
RWHC: What role does mental health screening play in the B4Stage4 philosophy, and how is MHA working to encourage and facilitate such screenings?
PG: Screening is crucial for early identification and intervention. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends regular behavioral health screenings for everyone over the age of 11. Adults are accustomed to regular screenings for blood pressure and cholesterol, and children are commonly screened for vision and dental problems, but we don’t prioritize regular behavioral health screenings.
MHA offers a variety of online mental health screening tools (also available in Spanish) to help the general public, providers and caregivers open the doorway to recovery. These screening tools are the same ones physicians use, but they are self-administered, completely anonymous and provide customized recommendations on what to do next. Three thousand people take one of these screening tests every day, and to-date, more than three million people have been screened. The vast majority of those taking one of our online screening tests screen positive, even though they have not been diagnosed with a mental health condition previously.
Chronic Disease and Behavioral Health
RWHC: Are people with chronic illnesses like cancer or MS at particular risk for developing behavioral health problems?
PG: About 80 percent of the people with chronic illness who take one of our online screenings test positive for a behavioral health issue. A common misperception about those with a chronic illness is that anxiety or depression is a “natural” part of having a chronic medical condition, that it “makes sense” to feel down or low. All of the focus is placed on treating the medical health condition and not the behavioral health condition.
We see two distinct groups for which this attitude is a problem. First are those who have chronic health conditions and are at risk for developing behavioral health conditions. For example, people who have had heart bypass surgery are at risk for chemical imbalances that can lead to depression. Second are those whose behavioral health conditions can lead to medical conditions, for example a person with depression who develops diabetes due to lack of exercise and proper nutrition, or even treatment side effects.
So many disease management programs fail because they focus on only the medical condition or only the behavioral health condition. The health care industry needs to better integrate services to focus on treating the whole patient.
Integrated Behavioral Health Care
RWHC: What are some of the challenges facing health care providers treating those with chronic illnesses in terms of preventing or treating behavioral health problems that arise due to or after their illnesses?
PG: A key challenge is incomplete medical records. A primary doctor or medical specialist may not have visibility into the whole patient and may not have the time or training to efficiently incorporate behavioral health screening into their practice. They should know that screening doesn’t need to be a long, involved process. The tests are simple to use and easy to score. The PHQ9 test for depression, for example, contains just 10 multiple choice questions. The CAGE-AID test for alcohol or substance abuse contains only four multiple choice questions.
We also encourage patients to take our online screening tests before seeing their primary doctor or specialist and to bring their results to their appointment for discussion. They can even do it on their phone in the waiting room and bring it right into the exam room.
Another challenge is lack of awareness about referral sources among primary and specialty physicians. MHA is working to make sure that localities throughout the country have the programs and services needed, through support centers and peer drop-in centers. We have also launched a certified peer specialist program to help support and work alongside health care teams in clinical and social services settings. This program is helping to reduce recidivism and readmission rates and improve overall well-being among those with even serious mental illnesses.
We’re also working with patient advocacy organizations across a wide range of medical disease conditions to improve collaboration so that people are exposed to every available resource.
RWHC: Do you have any additional insight or advice to offer patients, providers or caregivers?
PG: The intersection of chronic medical illness and chronic behavioral illness is a significant one. My biggest piece of advice is: Don’t be afraid to ask. If you have a behavioral health problem and also are experiencing physical symptoms, talk to your behavioral health care provider about them. If you have a medical health condition and think you may be at risk for a behavioral health issue, talk to your doctor and search out resources that may be available through the patient advocacy organizations for your diagnosed medical condition. See what they have to offer in terms of behavioral health resources.
I encourage patients, providers and caregivers to visit our web site for more information on finding help as well.
A Message from Our Sponsor
As the founding sponsor of Real World Health Care, the HealthWell Foundation is committed to helping patients get the medical treatments they need, regardless of their ability to pay. We’ve seen first-hand how financial distress can impact the health and lives of individuals and families. Cancer patients with behavioral health conditions are particularly hard hit; according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), patients with some forms of cancer incur $8,000 more per year in health care costs than cancer patients without behavioral health conditions.
In keeping with our mission, we are pleased to announce the introduction of a new Cancer-Related Behavioral Health Fund, specifically for treatment-related behavioral health issues in cancer. The Fund will provide financial assistance to individuals with a diagnosis of cancer to help with cost-shares (deductibles, coinsurances and copayments) for covered services rendered by behavioral health providers (psychiatrists, psychologists, clinical counselors, and licensed social workers).