Chung Trinh—founder and CEO of Lighthouse Psychiatry, a Gilbert-based mental health and counseling clinic—says the increase in mental health issues in Arizona follows the same trend in the U.S. as a whole.
“In addition to anxiety and depression—with depression being No. 1 in terms of its prevalence—postpartum depression, OCD and addiction are the key challenges facing mental health treatment in Arizona,” he says. “First of all, Arizona is home to a lot of veterans, many of whom suffer from PTSD and other related illnesses. So the major challenge is making sure we have enough resources to provide our community and treat these individuals suffering from these spiraling conditions. The sad thing is that in Arizona, there simply aren’t enough providers to handle the increasing need for care.”
Trinh says it’s one of the reasons his clinic has decided to change its paradigm of treatment and focus more on a team approach to helping mental illness sufferers.
“I think the most important aspect of mental health care, from the standpoint of treatment, is partnership,” he notes. “It’s been one of the most exciting developments in recent years in the Arizona mental health market. And that’s because care providers have come to the realization that the best way to help their patients is through a custom-tailored plan that’s based in partnering. With a greater need in mind, our strategy of treatment has really pivoted to be much more community-focused.”
Trinh says one of the big challenges in the past was a disconnect among the various treatment resources, and that allowed a lot of mental health patients to fall through the cracks.
“I think there’s been a lot of individuals who’ve embraced the need to create relationships to create a robust network that’s designed to ensure that those who need treatment can be identified and helped much earlier in the cycle,” he says.
One example he cites is how schools and hospitals are adopting educational programs that focus on raising mental health awareness and helping to reduce the stigma of mental illness that’s been prevalent for so long. Another development to help create more effective treatment is to provide what Trinh calls “wraparound” services that include multiple treatment modalities.
“We’re aiming to create a far more integrated approach to care. So some of the modalities we’re implementing might include an M.D. who prescribes appropriate medications and works hand-in-hand with a therapist focused on identifying and applying coping skills and mechanisms for sufferers. Add to that a focus on family dynamics and blending them with cutting-edge technologies like TMS [transcranial magnetic stimulation], and that really raises the bar on the comprehensive nature of treatment currently available to mental health patients.”
Trinh adds that we can’t overlook facilities or professionals that offer more holistic approaches to treatment, such as acupuncture or naturopathy, massage therapy or life coaching, and include nutritionists and dieticians.
“Regardless of the range that these cover, it’s all about finding resource alignment that leads to coordinated care. That’s the way you’re going to make a difference in these people’s lives,” he says.
1 in 5 adults in the U.S. will suffer a diagnosable mental illness in their lifetime – World Health Organization
Buttressing the philosophical changes in the nature of treatment, government policy is also helping to make strides in mental health.
“Arizona has made mental health awareness and treatment a major priority. From both an emerging treatment and a government perspective, we actually do better with mental health than a lot of other states in the country,” notes Dr. Don Fowls, president of the Arizona Psychiatric Society, a branch of the American Psychiatric Association, which represents and professionally advances the work of nearly 40,000 member psychiatrists throughout the U.S.
Fowls agrees with Trinh that the opioid epidemic has radically altered the nature of illness and treatment in Arizona. “I think what’s changed over the past several years—what’s really affected the whole mental health universe—is the opioid substance abuse crisis, along with the increase in the rate of suicides, particularly among kids. It’s hit people at all levels of the economic spectrum.”
He points out that one of the many concrete and positive measures Arizona has enacted occurred when former Arizona Governor Jan Brewer took steps to support the expansion of Medicaid. “
It enabled a couple hundred thousand people in this state to get on the Medicaid rolls—people who didn’t have insurance previously,” Fowls notes.
In fact, he says that Arizona has established a pretty strong fiscal connection between behavioral health and Medicaid. As he explains, “Just in Maricopa County alone, there’s about $850 million in state and federal dollars that cover services for about 26,000 people. That’s really contributed to increased awareness and treatment of mental illness throughout the state.”
Fowls believes another reason Arizona is seeing enhanced mental health awareness from a policy standpoint is the fact that current Governor Doug Ducey has been such an active supporter of mental health advancements in the state.
“He really has a heart for this stuff,” Fowls says of Ducey. “He’s been a very, very strong supporter of mental health and substance abuse benefits. The Governor’s done a lot of work to try and get the entire community involved—the businesses, the schools, etc.—and make this more of a wholesale community issue rather than just a government issue. It’s been a huge driving force in the state’s attitude toward mental health.”
“Arizona has made mental health awareness and treatment a major priority. From both an emerging treatment and a government perspective, we actually do better with mental health than a lot of other states in the country.” – Dr. Don Fowls, president, Arizona Psychiatric Society
Another important factor in Arizona’s increasing focus on mental health is the notable surge in technological capabilities that are aiding in treatment. Telepsychiatry—whereby psychiatric sessions and other treatment can be rendered remotely—is just one example of how psychiatric treatment is reaching significantly more mental health patients in Arizona and throughout the United States, Fowls says.
“There’s been a huge problem—a bottleneck—regarding access to services, and telepsychiatry really cuts through some of that. The technology has improved so dramatically over the past several years that treatment sessions can take place securely and privately over a handheld phone or a computer,” he adds. “It’s really having a huge impact.”
Still, despite these advances along both the treatment and policy paths, Arizona, like many other states, struggles to cope. “The overarching question,” Fowls says, “is how do we make sure there is a continuity of care from one treatment option to another to prevent any gaps? That’s the challenge. The answer is going to help bring about some much needed further change.”
“We’re trying to evolve in terms of how we provide care to individuals,” Trinh adds. “I think we’ll be on our way to helping solve this dilemma when we can establish a parallel path regarding what businesses, hospitals and treatment facilities are attempting to do. This is the right time to really make a conscious effort to advocate for true team effort—true synergy in everyone’s offering, so we can make sure we don’t see these individuals falling through the cracks of treatment disconnection.”
By Bruce Farr
Photo: Mark Lipczynski