Building A Culture Of Health: Behavioral Health

Note: On Oct. 28, Spartanburg was named a 2015 winner of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Culture of Health Prize. In becoming one of just eight communities nationwide to earn the designation out of more than 300 applicants, Spartanburg was recognized by the leading health philanthropy in the country for its years of work in addressing health outcomes countywide. While this work has brought dozens of organizations and hundreds of people together, the effort has coalesced around five broad areas: Active Living/Healthy Eating, Access To Care, Behavioral Health, Healthy Birth Outcomes, and Smoking Reduction.

This is Part 4 of a concise five-part look at the progress that has been made over the past several years in each of these focus areas. In this part, we look at Behavioral Health.

When it comes to behavioral health needs, the numbers can be overwhelming sometimes. In Spartanburg County alone, it is estimated that 72,000 people need some form of behavioral health assistance. Out of that population, only about one in six are receiving the help they need.

The reasons include a complicated mix of misfortune, poverty and an already-stressed and underfunded system. Many of the people who are not getting the treatment they need lack the money to get help or pay for basic medications. Many are unemployed. Some are homeless. Funding from government sources, which has never been adequate, has continued to decline, leaving fewer mental health professionals to handle a rising tide of caseloads.

It affects the entire community. Many people who have untreated behavioral health issues wind up in much worse situations than they would have if only they had been able to access basic care and medication earlier. Instead, some end up in a cycle in which they bounce between the emergency room, the street, and the jail, unable to build a better life for themselves and sometimes costing the local health care and criminal justice systems hundreds of thousands of dollars over time.

But Spartanburg County, behind the leadership of the United Way of the Piedmont, is tackling the issue in a way few communities across the country are. It’s a major reason why the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation honored Spartanburg with one of its Culture of Health Prizes this year. From those locked up to those who have served the country in uniform, the Behavioral Health Task Force is making a difference and helping to create a new culture of health in Spartanburg.

If you are mentally ill, it impacts other diseases because it means you are probably not managing them well,” explains Heather Witt, who co-chairs the task force. “If you add depression or mental illness it exacerbates the other illness or disease you have. So it’s essential to treat the whole individual.”

As with the other four health and wellness task forces, there are a number of initiatives underway under the behavioral health umbrella. From providing mental health training for first responders to a burgeoning tele-psychiatry program, a lot is being done.

But two areas of particular focus include targeting veterans who are suffering from mental health problems and working with the Spartanburg County Detention Center to identify inmates with behavioral health problems and develop a plan to help them and stem the jail-to-hospital-to-jail cycle.

“We have an opportunity with the Spartanburg Housing Authority to help homeless and potentially homeless veterans find permanent housing,” Witt said. “Now, we can’t just hand them a key and walk away. We have to have wraparound services in place to help them with their health needs and other services. So we are developing a peer services plan in which we have other veterans partner up with them. They check in with them on a regular basis, develop a relationship with them, and help make sure they get services they need and get connected to them.

Witt said if this task force receives the $25,000 from the Culture of Health Prize, it would help the local non-profit Upstate Warrior Solutions hire a case manager who would serve as a connector between homeless veterans and the services they need, including helping them get connected to housing and their peer mentor.

“The person in this position would wake up every day and worry about our homeless veterans in Spartanburg,” Witt said. “The funding would help us pilot and fund the position for the first year, and we are confident other funders would step forward and help continue the program after that.”