The following op-ed was published in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette on November 30, 2018.
One thing we all can agree on – there have been too many horrific stories of mass killings.
It should be clear from these tragic events, which are occurring now routinely across the country, that there is a critical need for expanded access to behavioral health services to help prevent these events and to help the survivors heal. Unfortunately, the nation faces a shortage of organizations and professionals equipped to help. The Blackstone Valley is no exception. In particular, finding help for our children and adolescents is not easy.
At a recent forum held at Blackstone Valley Tech, a group of some 60 teachers, guidance counselors, police, physicians, providers, state government representatives and others came together to talk about the need for expanded support for children in this fast-growing area of Massachusetts. It was a productive meeting with good participation by professionals who care about the well-being of youth in our community. Common concerns focused on staffing shortages and an increasing number of children and adolescents with anxiety and depression, as early as pre-school.
This issue is complex and requires a comprehensive set of solutions. But fundamental to improving the situation must be the acceptance by our society of the need for mental health and substance use services. The health care delivery system should respond by providing equity between behavioral health services and physical health services. Health insurance co-pays and caps on the number of visits should be equalized, and current reimbursement rates that do not cover the full cost of delivering behavioral services should be increased. These changes should attract more clinicians to the field, and thus, significantly expand access to care.
In the near term, we can point to incremental progress. Local providers like Riverside Community Care, Wayside Youth and Family Services, and Family Continuity Program are working together to coordinate referrals to help those on wait lists. Schools are finding ways to bring local clinicians directly into the school to reduce barriers. The Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts has been directing resources in this direction – most recently granting Riverside $100,000 to help expand its capacity to provide integrated behavioral health and substance use services for youth.
In the past few years, the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health (DMH) funded a new day program for youth with significant mental health needs, and Riverside opened a new school which is funded by local schools. DMH has also offered to provide more training to the broader school and healthcare community.
Importantly, the community group has decided to get back together to continue to strategize and find solutions to meet the need. While the meeting was taking place, Blackstone Valley Tech Superintendent-Director Dr. Michael Fitzpatrick left for a few minutes to help a high school student who was in tears. When he came back to the room, he told us what had happened and made the point that we are all responsible for the well-being of the youth in our community.
So there is another thing we can all agree on: our youth deserve easy access to behavioral health services. We simply cannot give up on our kids.
– Janice B. Yost, Ed.D., is president of the Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts. Scott M. Bock is president/CEO of Riverside Community Care.