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Our Communities Need Greater Access to Behavioral Health Care

Leadership Blog

Our Communities Need Greater Access to Behavioral Health Care

By Ken Carlson, Director, Mission and Spiritual Care, St. Luke’s Health

August 04, 2023 Posted in: Leadership

Our mental health is an essential part of our overall well-being. It affects how we function and take care of ourselves, which is directly linked to our physical health. In the Houston area, as mental health crises continue to rise, access to behavioral health resources remains notably lower than the national average, according to an Understanding Houston report. The Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center’s  2022 Community Health Needs Assessment (CHNA) also shows substance abuse remains a serious issue in our area. 

Yet, access to mental health care and substance abuse treatment is not where it needs to be. By analyzing our current practices, identifying where issues lie and collaborating with others in the community, we’re working to help the people we serve get the resources they need. It’s time to tip the scale in the right direction. 

Mental Health

At St. Luke’s Health (SLH), our goal is to provide the highest level of care for the whole person, and this includes mental health. But the 2022 CHNA shows us more work is needed. We know the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a huge toll on mental health for many people, exacerbating anxiety and depression and greatly affecting their well-being. The number of adults in the Houston area who report feeling anxious or nervous more than half the days of the week remained elevated throughout the pandemic. Even as we emerge from the pandemic, these issues continue to persist

During 2022, 13.2 percent of adults in our area reported experiencing frequent mental distress, which is higher than the Texas state rate of 11.7 percent. Rates for Texas high school students are much more alarming, with 38.3 percent reporting feelings of depression over the previous year. Nearly 19 percent seriously considered suicide and 10 percent attempted suicide. 

Major obstacles often prevent people from getting the mental health care they need, including:

  • Cost: Most people cannot afford to see a therapist or seek other mental health services more than a few times per year.

  • Cultural barriers: Stigma around mental health prevents many people from seeking help.

  • Lack of a medical home: People without a regular primary care provider are forced to seek out mental health care on their own, which can be difficult and confusing.

  • Lack of providers: There are not enough mental health care providers to meet the growing need.

Substance Abuse 

Substance abuse and misuse are serious mental health conditions, with 1 in 4 adults living with mental health issues also abusing substances. In the Houston area, alcohol and drug use has been on the rise, with the pandemic exacerbating the problem for people seeking ways to ease stress, anxiety and depression. 

In our area, 17.3 percent of adults reported binge drinking in the previous 30 days, with binge drinking defined as five or more drinks per occasion for men and four or more drinks per occasion for women. For youth, drinking rates went up by age, with 3 percent of 10th graders binge drinking and 8.8 percent of 12th graders binge drinking. 

Drug use was a bigger concern for young people, with 17.5 percent of 9th to 12th graders using pain medication without a prescription; 7.6 percent using inhalants such as glues, paint and sprays; 6.8 percent using ecstasy; and 6 percent using cocaine. 

Other statistics from the Greater Houston Community Foundation also reveal adult drug use rose significantly during the pandemic. But similar to mental health resources, many obstacles prevent people with substance abuse problems from getting the help they need, including:

  • Inability to accommodate pandemic need: Alcohol and drug use alike skyrocketed during the pandemic, and we lack the resources to address this increased need.

  • Lack of beds and facilities: Only 12 detox beds for drug and alcohol abuse exist in Harris County, and they are almost always full. There is also a lack of residential facilities in the area.

  • Lack of trained counselors: Not enough counselors are available for substance abuse services.

  • Referral issues: Diagnosis and referrals for substance abuse treatments often require a concurrent referral, which is often not available. 

What Can We Do to Improve Behavioral Health Care?

Improving access to quality mental health care begins with normalizing mental health issues. To do this, we need community education and removal of the barriers standing in the way of getting resources to the many people who need them. We also need increased funding aimed at substance abuse programs and services to increase the availability of these important resources for our community members.

SLH is taking steps to meet these goals happen: 

  • Developing resources in the emergency department to better manage the needs of behavioral health patients

  • Educating frontline responders on behavioral health issues

  • Strengthening partnerships within the community to advocate for increased support for behavioral health specialists to team up with caregivers

These actions are a start, and we will continue to ramp up efforts to ensure our patients and community members are able to access the mental health and substance abuse resources they need. 

What is your organization doing to improve access to mental health care?

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