Thanks to the global pandemic, more people than ever have recognized mental health as a core part of life, health and whole person care. At the same time, access to care continues to be a problem. While access issues apply across all groups of people, inequities exacerbate the problem.
As a licensed psychologist, I get frustrated by our behavioral health delivery systems. Despite advances in knowledge, our systems continue to focus on:
- Symptom reduction.
- Individuals rather than their family systems.
- One aspect of health apart from other facets of life.
I’ve discovered that those of us who believe in the value of mental health and whole person care need to be more proactive in advocating for changes. Those changes pertain to our systems, our policies, and even our health benefits. I'll share three ways I’ve seen data being used effectively to advocate for whole person mental health.
1 – Raising awareness
The first step in any advocacy effort is to identify areas of need and opportunity. Knowing where there are inequities – as well as strong access – can raise awareness of problems and also best practices.
One way data can raise awareness and increase access to mental health care is by providing accurate information about people in need. In turn, this can combat stigma and discrimination.
When I was with the San Bernardino County Department of Behavioral Health, we used data and analytics to gain a whole person perspective. This helped dispel misconceptions and stigmas. Based on the results of our data analysis, we began work to change the public narrative around behavioral health. When there’s less stigma and discrimination – and awareness of what treatment is really like – access and equity improve.
Many mental health awareness efforts focus on the community. But we can’t forget the needs of employees, and especially healthcare workers. While it’s nothing new for healthcare professionals to need mental health care, the pandemic has thrust this issue to the forefront. The Black Dog Institute in Australia, for instance, used data to identify which groups of healthcare workers needed the most support. Then they built an eHealth hub connecting workers to a network of resources that simplified access to services.
2 – Researching, evaluating and improving quality
My first realization of the power of data as an advocacy tool was when I oversaw treatment programs and partnered with a university research team. In this role, I developed insight into how the power of data could directly improve peoples’ access to care. One example is the data we uncovered to encourage ongoing grant funding for Medicaid populations and for managed care plans covering non-standard programs.
From there, overseeing Research & Evaluation at San Bernardino County gave me more insights into how these activities closely pair with continuous quality improvement efforts to iteratively strengthen service delivery. Research, evaluation and quality improvement efforts are also a foundation for innovative efforts to provide whole person mental health care. The Black Dog Institute has conducted similar activities, especially in evaluating specific suicide prevention efforts.
Many folks don’t realize that a lot of privacy laws and regulations have different provisions for research, evaluation and quality improvement. As a society, we know these activities are central to good care. Fortunately, data sharing is often allowed for this type of work. California’s Mental Health Service Oversight and Accountability Commission has partnered with other state agencies to obtain a statewide, whole person view. Their research and evaluation activities continue to identify what kinds of services – even outside of health care – are best suited to serve communities.
3 – Advocating for system and policy change
When we apply insights from the data-based efforts described above, we can intentionally advocate for true mental health system and policy change. Using information from pilot programs in San Bernardino, for example, we engaged public stakeholders more effectively in efforts to improve our systems. Informing state and national stakeholders and policymakers about findings helps disseminate information across sectors and influence further change.
My colleagues at the Riverside University Health System have used their data in all the ways discussed here. They’ve also shared their data with the state to inform Medicaid policy around suspending versus disenrolling someone from benefits when they’re incarcerated.
Having data to demonstrate that changes in policy lead to positive outcomes (both human and financial) makes a powerful story. It's one we can use to strengthen momentum and champion our efforts.