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At the forefront of modern health care, leaders strive for a unified mental health system, grappling with the persistent challenges of substance use disorders, suicide, and serious mental illness. Leaders at Health Evolution’s 2023 Connect addressed the future of mental and behavioral health care, tackling critical questions. Experts addressed hurdles in ensuring access and quality for those with the highest needs while fortifying the system’s resilience for the future.

This pivotal dialogue unfolded in our Big Discussion, “Building a Cohesive Mental Health System: Leading Strategies and Partnerships to Overcome Disconnects and Confront the Ongoing Mental Health Crisis.” Here, industry executives Jay Desai, Executive Chair and Board Member, Bamboo Health; Secretary Kody Kinsley, North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services; and Cara McNulty, President, Behavioral Health & Mental Well-being, CVS Health, moderated by David Shulkin, MD, the 9th Secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, explored innovative strategies in mental and behavioral health care.

Shulkin emphasized, “The focus in behavioral health is on the structure of our health care system and how it either facilitates or creates obstacles to providing optimal behavioral health care. I have personally witnessed the integration of behavioral health care with physical health care in the Department of Veterans Affairs, and it is crucial.”

Leaders delved into overcoming complex disconnects across the health care ecosystem, ultimately seeking leading strategies and partnerships for the public and private sectors to join together and confront the ongoing mental health crisis.

Quantifying Well-Being: A Call for Innovative Measurement

The discussion leaders proffered a compelling question: how do organizations measure and enhance mental well-being? It’s a question with profound implications and significant challenges, but it demands executives’ attention, leaders said. In a world where individuals routinely monitor their physical health through scales and devices, it’s striking there’s not a similar tool for mental health.

But Desai noted that organizations have the knowledge necessary to build such tools. “Health care leaders have identified several key indicators that hold potential for quantifying mental health. Pain, isolation, social connectedness—these are just some of the subtle indicators that can provide early insights into one’s mental health,” he said.

McNulty agreed. “The quest for innovative measurement techniques has begun. While there may be no established tool akin to a scale for measuring mental health, we’ve made strides at assessing risk and intervening before a crisis. Fortunately, there’s a consensus on daily practices to nurture a healthier mental state. Mindfulness, breathing exercises, and resiliency-building can be the bedrock of a mental health regimen that becomes as ingrained in daily life as brushing one’s teeth.”

Kinsely added that tools for gauging and tracking patients’ mental health could look similar to those used to evaluate and track social drivers of health. “It looks more like the social determinants aspects, as far as thinking about, ‘are you being fed, are you getting exercise?’ We know those are the foundations of overall mental health, and that feeds into it.”

Collaborative Care Models: A ‘Vanguard’ for Mental Health Support

Beyond needing to identify new ways to detect and measure mental health, health care CEOs also face a changing landscape where mental health is rapidly becoming a defining component of modern health care. As such, leaders unscored the importance of integrating mental health care into clinical care settings to ensure patients have a consistent and comprehensive care experience. These types of care models endeavor to establish an unbroken circle of support and a holistic paradigm that revolutionizes the landscape of mental health care.

Leaders noted that embracing collaborative care models and incorporating them into clinical care institutions presents an opportunity to pioneer a new era of mental health support. Kinsely noted, “Collaborative care models have risen to prominence, notably in North Carolina, significantly contributing to suicide prevention. These models are the vanguard of mental health support, extending far beyond crisis interventions.”

Desai added his insight, noting, “Training nonclinical staff to hold space in a moment of crisis is an impactful and lifesaving intervention as it expands the pool of crisis support staff available. Establishing a lifeline for individuals emphasizes the significance of holding space. Organizations like Bamboo are one solution, but addressing what to do post-stabilization, especially in the face of potential relapse, is where the work needs to happen.” This comprehensive strategy ensures that the strides made in mental health support extend well into the aftermath of crisis moments.

Beyond Individuals: The Compassionate Family-Centric Approach

However, the journey toward comprehensive mental health support doesn’t end at the individual. It must extend to the family unit, leaders said. McNulty explained, “You see a parent who’s unfortunately just hospitalized their child and done an involuntary commitment. The parents and any siblings are also going to need help and support. And guess who’s really good at helping them? Families who have been in the same place before.”

Leaders stressed the importance of a family-centric approach to mental health care. As the effects of mental health challenges ripple through families, family support specialists can help to provide a full spectrum of resources to fortify all family members with the tools they need to ensure their wellbeing. This focus on families is a hallmark of forward-thinking mental health care and an opportunity to lead with compassion.

Looking Forward: A Vision for Comprehensive Mental Health Support

Desai noted, “One memorable statistic that sticks with me is that the average time from onset of symptoms to seeking care for mental health is 11 years. This statistic starkly illuminates the pervasive stigma surrounding behavioral health, urging us to rethink our approaches.”

The evolving landscape of modern health care mandates that executives wholeheartedly embrace a collaborative, family-centric, and holistic approach to mental health care. Leaders must explore innovative measurement strategies and acknowledge that mental health is an intrinsic part of patients’ overall well-being.

Leaders left no room for complacency, making it explicit that the transformation must be swift and comprehensive. They urged health care CEOs to enact policies and practices that nurture mental well-being. Leaders believe this is the path forward to enhance the state of mental health for individuals, families, and communities alike, and they issued a call to action for health care executives to step forward and redefine the future of mental health support.

Ashley Antonelli

Senior Manager, Executive Communications

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