SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Troubled adolescents, suicidal ideation, alcoholism and substance abuse are the effects of a mental health crisis that Healthy Bodies, Healthy Minds Washington County says had been brewing locally well before the coronavirus arrived.
Understanding how to address this particular epidemic is a key part of a strategic plan released Oct. 9 by Healthy Bodies, Healthy Minds to respond to the needs across the county.
“We all know that mental health is essential to our well-being,” Healthy Bodies, Healthy Minds co-chairperson Laurel Holmes said. “Half of us are likely to experience mental illness and/or substance abuse disorder in our lifetime. Twenty percent of us will have a behavioral health need in any given year.”
In Washington County, the death rate due to mental health and behavioral disorders is higher than the national average and is increasing, Holmes said.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is further eroding mental health, and residents of Washington County are experiencing rising levels of anxiety, depression and substance abuse,” she added. “That’s why this plan is so important.”
Healthy Bodies, Healthy Minds is one of Rhode Island’s 10 Health Equity Zones.
“Our charge is to collaboratively transform community health in Washington County and our mission is to advance the health and well-being of Washington County residents through collective community action to address disparities,” Holmes said.
Long before COVID-19 hit, mental health services and supports had been inadequate in Washington County, HBHM Director Susan Orban said.
“Our children, friends, and neighbors continue to flood local emergency rooms in crisis, in increasing numbers,” Orban said.
In response, she said, HBHM spent the past two years developing its new three-year action plan to address the crisis. It was designed with, and is accountable to, people with lived experiences and their families.
“Most important, we prioritized the voices of consumers and their family members in developing strategies and solutions. It was a data-driven process, but driven by the wisdom of people who have lived through the experiences of mental health challenges,” Orban added.
The two-hour introduction of the plan, done over Zoom, highlighted the plan’s “four pillars” of culture change, self-determination and inclusion, improving parity and treatment, and addressing gaps in the the crisis system.
Each pillar is focused on its own goal, or goals, and the strategies needed to implement several objectives to get there. Culture change, for example, aims to reduce the stigma and fear of seeking treatment.
One objective in doing so would be to increase the number of towns committed to training residents in Mental Health First Aid from two to five.
That could be achieved, according to the plan, by advocating for towns to propose and pass Mental Health First Aid resolutions and providing Mental Health First Aid (youth and adult) for residents.
A three-year measure of the pillar’s success would be a 10% decrease in deaths by suicide.
Keynote speaker David Covington, president and CEO of Recovery Innovations, Inc., recommended ways to implement the new plan in Washington County.
“When I look at the feedback from plans like this, to me you always have a focus on quality and compliance,” Covington said. “But the degree to which you engage lived experience is going to impact the way it feels.”
Covington congratulated Healthy Bodies, Healthy Minds and other stakeholders for developing a comprehensive plan.
“It looks like a tremendous foundation for moving care forward in Rhode Island,” he said.
In his talk, Covington cited a report issued to Congress in 2017 reflecting on people with more serious mental illnesses in the United States.
“It’s akin to someone living in Afghanistan,” he said. “They’re dying at ages 45 to 55, for a host of medical issues, many of which are caused by or related to the treatments that we give. Diabetes and heart disease are common, obesity is too. The social relationships, the connectivity of these individuals is challenged by virtue of the situation we talked about.”
A panel discussion of local, state and federal leaders followed, and featured Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Region 1 Administrator Tom Coderre; Rhode Island Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals Director Kathryn Power and URI Academic Health Collaborative Director Elizabeth Roberts.
U.S. Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) joined the panel and called the plan “incredibly far-sighted and thoughtful” and a model for the state and the country.
“We all hope that someday we’ll celebrate the success of your plan in person,” Reed said. “Washington County has really stepped up and made a great contribution.”
The plan is available online at https://bodiesminds.org/mental-health/