Non-English speaking residents and K-12 students in Orange County have one major thing in common: a concerning lack of access to mental health care.
It is crucial to prioritize making sure that everyone in Orange County has adequate access to the care they need, Orange County Commissioner Renee Price said.
“For the sake of equity and humanity, we should know where the gaps exist, to what extent is exists, and then design ways and means to address the gap,” she said.
A gap in mental health care access among certain demographics was brought to light recently when the Orange County Department of Health submitted a report to the Orange County Board of Commissioners identifying mental health care access as a leading cause of concern in the county.
“We work closely with many community non-profits, hospitals, and advocacy groups to plan for Orange County, and disparities around treatment and access to mental health are among the most challenging issues our community faces,” Orange County Interim Health Director Dorothy Cilenti said.
While there are a number of vulnerable groups in Orange County, the report focuses in particular on two of the most susceptible to a lack of mental health care access: K-12 students and non-english speaking patients.
An assumption that children do not suffer from mental health problems is one reason why the K-12 demographic is underserved, health department spokesperson Stacy Shelp said.
“There’s a lack of services for K-12 for a variety of reasons,” she said.
“Time commitment, insurance, transportation, and a lack of understanding that children can have mental health issues are among them. There needs to be guidance, and having a clinician in the school is great.”
Janet Cherry, system of care director for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, said that if students are able to be more open to instruction and able to absorb material thanks to access to mental health services, then bringing clinicians into the school is the way to go.
The North Carolina State Board of Education recently passed new mental health policy legislation that aims to increase the number of mental health professionals in public schools across the state.
“(It will) give some direction in bringing on board mental health specialists in schools and also give advice on how to deal with capacity for access to these services,” Cherry said.
“It should also help with addressing sustainability.”
A lack of education surrounding the issue of mental health care seems to be the stem of much of the stigma concerning what exactly mental health issues are and who they can affect. This can be damaging to the efforts to create policy that benefits patients in need, Price said.
“This same stigma has kept policy-makers, corporate interests, media, the military, schools, and the general public at a distance from accepting mental health care as a normal part of life,” Price said.
Shelp said the county hopes to tackle these issues with 3 main priorities: restoring funding for mental health services from birth to age 5, providing greater in-school mental health service in K-12 and providing easier access for all patients.Cilenti also reiterated the importance of focusing on 0-25 patients.
“Evidence-based behavioral health research has shown that early intervention can produce better outcomes for patients as they age,” she said.
These services will not only helps students, but also should give their families increased access to mental health care, as well, Cherry said.
The second vulnerable focus group is the non-english speaking population. Orange County is home to immigrants and refugees from many countries. In addition, the county has a vibrant spanish-speaking population, Shelp said.
Contrary to what one might think. Shelp said that simply bringing in more Spanish-speaking therapists would not be a sufficient solution to the problem.
The recent report, titled “Assessment of Orange County Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services” lists two main goals for increasing access to mental health care for non-English speakers.
For one, there needs to be more diversity in the languages that mental health and substance abuse services are offered in, including Spanish and Karen, according to the report. The report also lists cultural competency training as a necessity to help healthcare providers better understand how to work with refugee and undocumented populations.
County-wide reform in how non-english speaking patients are approached and helped is necessary to actually tackle the problem, Shelp said.
Moving forward, the next question is how will these service improvements be paid for. The Orange County manager is presenting the budget for the next fiscal year on May 2nd.
This report will then be passed on to the Board of Commissioners for final approval.
Overall, the county hopes to be able to begin addressing the mental health care gap by the next fiscal year, which starts July 1, 2017.
Mental health care resources are not just a useful expense, but a necessary one, Cherry said.
“Our Department of Public Instruction feels that increasing mental health care access is very important and essential to the continued learning and well-being of our students.”