In a recent article published in The Bergen Record, Cathleen Bennett wrote about New Jersey state’s efforts to support an integrated health care system that treats people’s physical and mental health at the same time. In her article, Ms. Bennett discusses the impact that one’s mental health or addiction struggles may have on their physical health, and vice versa. Can you imagine how hard it must be to follow up with doctors’ appointments, prepare healthy meals and take medications as prescribed while suffering from clinical depression? In my experience in settings that practice integrated care, patients who participate have much better overall health outcomes than those who don’t. The mind-body connection is undeniable, and treating one without the other is incomplete care. The majority of the clients I see for therapy have co-occurring medical problems, in addition to their emotional/psychological challenges, and neither one of these can really improve without a holistic, integrated approach that treats the entire person.
Here are my top four lessons that my work in integrated mental health care has taught me:
- The stigma is real: I can’t begin to count how many of my clients have suffered in silence with their mental illnesses until their doctor began to recognize their symptoms. These individuals have been very open with me about their resistance to seeking out mental health services due to the stigma associated with it. Somehow, though, speaking with a therapist in their primary care doctor’s office was more comfortable for them as it is for many people, and that’s where they began sharing their challenges for the very first time. More often than not, as therapy progressed, I noticed that the patients’ overall health began to improve. This reinforces how essential integrated care really is and begs the question of how long a person would be able to survive without it.
- The challenge of countless appointments to keep: When a person has multiple medical problems, they likely see a number of specialists who help manage their care. More often than not, the various doctors are located in different places, so the patient has some traveling to do. The last thing a patient needs is more appointments to keep. Integrated mental health care brings therapy to the same location as the patient’s medical providers, making it less stressful to add another appointment to their day.
- We have a shared goal: In order for integrated mental health care to work, all the providers involved need to buy in. While change can be scary and challenging, it is often also a really good thing. For many clinicians, this approach does represent real change, but it is for the good of the patient. In my experience, most of the other providers who I work alongside in caring for patients are very appreciative of my involvement in helping to improve the patient’s health. The entire team shares a goal of helping the patient live a healthier, happier and more meaningful life. Once a clinician begins to see this in his/her patients, resistance to change disappears.
- Each perspective is equally important: Integrating mental health services into the primary care settings adds other perspectives to the patient care team. Knowing how successfully the patient has been able to manage their blood sugar levels, the results of their most recent MRI and EEG, and the way their new medication is making them feel are all really important things to know. Understanding how the patient’s depression, anxiety or other mental health challenges is impacting their life and ability to manage their health care is essential as well. All of this information together is what helps us provide the most excellent care possible.
As Ms. Bennett writes, “Mental illness and addictions can influence the onset, progression and outcome of other illnesses and often correlates with health risk behaviors.” This statement couldn’t be truer, and an integrated mental health care program helps address this problem in a significant way. Together, we can treat individuals with complex medical and emotional needs in order to improve their overall health, wellness and quality of life.
By Kira Batist-Wigod
Kira Batist-Wigod is a social worker with a wide range of experience and training in cognitive behavioral therapy, trauma work and stress management. Kira specializes in treating people with chronic illnesses, depression and anxiety. She sees clients in her private practice on the Upper West Side and in New Jersey, where she also holds workshops on various topics. Kira also works at a medical center in the Bronx. Contact Kira by email at [email protected] or by calling 917-765-4743. You can also visit her website at www.batistpsychotherapy.com.