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June 30, 2020

What the Covid-19 epidemic means for behavioral health

Daily Briefing

    Radio Advisory host Rachel (Rae) Woods spoke with Clare Wirth, an Advisory Board consultant who leads research on behavioral health and care delivery transformation, about how the Covid-19 epidemic is affecting behavioral health services—and what executives should be doing in the behavioral health sphere right now.

    Read an excerpt from the podcast and then download the episode to hear the full conversation:

    Rachel Woods: I want to give you a moment to maybe speak directly to providers, particularly those who aren't used to seeing an increase in behavioral health needs like we're seeing right now. What's your message to help support them as they navigate what this means for their own patient care?

    Clare Wirth: You don't have to be a behavioral health specialist to help here. Virtually every patient who walks into your door henceforth is going to have some kind of behavioral health need. So, even if you don't have that expertise, you can at least acknowledge it, normalize patients' distressed reactions, conduct psychosocial assessments, and then in the moment, you can empathize—you can help patients recognize their own stress reactions, help them identify how they should be responding, which can be as simple as practicing calming breathing techniques. And then, most importantly, you have to connect them to other resources.

    Woods: And I'll just admit that that's hard to do, especially as providers are struggling with interacting telephonically and adapting to rapid change in the industry. Do we have anything to help those frontline providers as they're thinking about navigating behavioral health conversations?

    Wirth: Yes. We just published a blog post the other week on how to talk about behavioral health and some terms that you can avoid and some options for how you can replace those words.

    Woods: All of this is kind of leaving me with a major question: Will Covid-19 actually be a moment to transform the way we see behavioral health in this country? Is there enough urgency, enough need, and enough awareness to spark long-term change in the way that we provide behavioral health services?

    Wirth: It's a great question. I hope that's the case. We've been hearing from a range of different folks across the health care system. For some,predominantly the chief strategy officer and people reporting up to them,they are still at the very beginning of this and are pretty skeptical as to whether this is the watershed moment for behavioral health. But the directors of behavioral health whom I speak to seem to be a bit more encouraging that this could be it; that others are finally recognizing the need that they have been seeing firsthand.

    Woods: Yes, I mean the fact that CSOs at all are coming to the table and saying, "I need behavioral health to be part of my strategic plan,"  that seems like a change.

    Wirth: That's because we're suddenly in a situation where a large proportion of Americans are now experiencing symptoms that in the past have been felt by a far smaller group. There's still a chance that this national or even international trauma that we're all collectively going through could help normalize the discussion around mental health and create an incentive for lawmakers and employers to push for improved access to behavioral health services.

    Woods: I want to ask you one final question: When it comes to behavioral health, what should executives be really thinking about and spending their time on right now?

    Wirth: Short-term, one of the most important things that health care leaders can be doing amid this Covid-19 crisis, is taking every opportunity they can to encourage mental health well-being—promote behavioral health resources at every staff meeting you have for the next three to six months, and that means affirming that taking care of your mental health is not selfish. It's like you're on a plane, you need to put on your own oxygen mask before taking care of others.

    In the long-term scheme, we have to be thinking of this as finally a time to transform the mental health care system. Historically, it has been funded, structured, and researched separately from other clinical conditions, and while we've seen some alignment in recent years of behavioral health and other health services, to do this in a substantial way this requires true cross industry collaboration. Payers, health systems, independent and community behavioral health providers, and legislators, just to name a few.

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