On October 19, 2021, the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) hosted a panel discussion that included health care and policy experts focused on mental health needs. The discussion focused on integration of behavioral health care into the overall health care system, how to expand such services and how to improve community knowledge and involvement. The group tackled topics such as incentivizing primary care providers and how to increase the pool of available providers.


The event was moderated by Marilyn Serafini, the Director of the Health Project at BPC. In her remarks she focused on the severe shortage of psychiatrist, psychologists, and behavioral health specialists. She emphasized that pre-pandemic, less than half of adults with mental health conditions received services. The need for mental health and substance use services continues to grow.


Following the introduction, Serafini introduced panelists from the mental health community. Benjamin F. Miller, president of Well Being Trust, and Dr. Anita Burges, a Senior Health Advisor for the House of Representatives delivered opening remarks. Miller discussed the main issues regarding mental health including the aging of the workforce, lower salaries, lack of resources, and the distance individuals living in rural areas have to travel to receive help. Dr. Burges shared how there needs to be a clear shift regarding mental health from primary care workers to community-initiated care. He defines community-initiated care as a way that individuals that are not trained health care workers can learn how to respond to mental health issues through intervention tactics.


Dr. Regina Benjamin, who served as U.S. Surgeon General starting in 20009, focused on the severe impact the COVID-19 pandemic had on individuals with mental health issues in the United States. She discussed how the stigma surrounding mental health has made it so that those individuals who are grappling with their mental health would rather struggle than seek help at a mental health facility. Due to this fact, Dr. Benjamin iterates how primary care offices should receive training and support to work with individuals who have mental health issues to avoid the stigma of mental health facilities.


Dr. Shekhar Saxena, a professor at Harvard T.H. Chan School spoke about prevention and promotion and what role communities play in implementing these elements. Dr. Saxena mentioned community members such as social workers, teachers, and even barbers who can all play vital roles. He also went into detail about the specifics of training for peer supporters, expressing that the goal should be about making peer supporters, mental health promoters.


The final comments were from Keris Jän Myrick, the director of the Jed Foundation and the Co-director of The Mental Health Strategic Impact Initiative. Myrick shared how peers can be across the spectrum of care. For example, for children, their peer supporter can be their teacher or a trusted adult at school. Dr. Benjamin points out that children are resilient, however, they can only be resilient for so long. It’s important that parents and primary care providers are paying close attention to behavioral patterns and not just medical standards. Link here for the recording: Integration, Expansion, Community Education – How to Improve Access to Mental Health Services


As a reminder: The Senate Finance Committee is asking for public comments on ways to address substance use and mental health services, the full letter: here.  The Committee is asking members of the behavior health community and other interested parties about how the committee can best address behavioral health challenges especially considering the pandemic.


Specifically, they said they are looking for evidence-based solutions and ideas to advance behavioral health care in a) strengthening the workforce, b) increasing integration and coordination and access to care, c) ensuring parity between behavioral and physical health care, d) furthering the use of telehealth, and e) improving access to be health care for children and young people.