Supporting behavioral health during a global pandemic

Behavioral health is one of many aspects of whole person care, and is of particular concern during the COVID-19 crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic has driven up awareness of behavioral health need to new levels. As we honor Mental Health Month, schools, governments, and private companies are all talking about how to support people’s behavioral health. This is wonderful progress compared to our global history of speaking of mental health and substance use conditions behind closed doors and in hushed tones.

But knowing there is a great need isn’t enough. What can we do to support behavioral health, especially amid a global pandemic?

Decrease Stigma

It’s well established in health and social services that where there is stigma, people won’t seek care. Decreasing the stigma around behavioral health (which includes both mental health and substance use conditions) makes it more likely that people in need will seek help. And that’s a good thing. Seeking behavioral health support is what builds recovery and resilience.

I’ve shared in the past how analytics and whole person data can combat stigma and discrimination and empower recovery. Good data can help us recognize that, in many ways, it’s normal to experience behavioral health challenges over the course of our lives, especially when confronted by unprecedented stressors.

Identify Needs

It is safe to assume that there is currently a higher rate of suffering globally. But as I shared last year, the presence of pain and discomfort is not necessarily the same as suffering. For schools, employers, health systems, and governments around the world that want to know where to direct resources to help people, this presents a challenge.

If real suffering is based on more than just symptoms, then whole person perspectives can help us better identify those most likely to need more support. In the past, I’ve talked about how AI can identify high-risk folks across systems. This has primarily focused on people with the greatest health care needs. However, this same approach can proactively identify people who may need some outreach and engagement, especially to support behavioral health.

Consider schools that are concerned about the students who are invisible to them right now. In many places, leaders have suspended in-person lessons for all grades. Some students are checking in regularly, submitting assignments and apparently achieving as usual. Others have reached out, asking for additional help. But what about those we don’t know about? Few schools have the resources, especially now, to reach out to every single one of those students. Based on more whole person assessment, including their engagement (or lack thereof) in schoolwork, what if we could risk stratify these students to prioritize who needs a teacher, a counselor, a friend, etc. to reach out and provide extra support?

Think, also, of the people helped by our safety net systems, who struggle even when the world is not in the throes of a health crisis. These are often socially isolated people folks who have now been cut off further. They may be those at greatest risk of domestic violence and child/dependent adult abuse and neglect. Routine health and social service check-ins can reveal potential needs, although identifying problems in these short visits is difficult enough.

What if we used additional information to identify those in need of extra social support right now? Public support systems might use health care information, like diagnoses, symptoms and utilization. Information on social services benefits, housing data and even criminal justice encounters, along with demographic information, could provide insights into peoples’ needs. Schools and districts could get a better sense of who needs extra support by combining academic performance data with other indicators of engagement such as attendance (including online logins), registration and campus activity participation. Demographics and financial aid data can add additional context.

By identifying who is currently at greatest need of social support, behavioral health services or a safe space, we can minimize the unintended effects of physical distancing while supporting good public health prevention efforts.

Identify Next Best Actions

Once we have pinpointed those with the greatest needs, we must determine what kind of support to offer. This is often called the “next best action,” providing data-driven suggestions as to what the most appropriate next step would be. A simple analog from the world of retail is when websites suggest additions to our online shopping cart.

But this can be applied to health care and social services as well. While we may identify the type of service someone needs, we don’t always know whether they will accept that type of support, especially when it comes to behavioral health. Whole person analytics can not only help us identify what types of services may be helpful to a person, but also what help the individual might accept.

Proactively identifying priority needs and next best actions can help us use our resources more effectively and efficiently. Services providers can help more people through fewer services, wasting less time on things that don't work.

The pandemic, even with all its negative far-reaching effects, offers a profound opportunity to find more meaning in our communities by supporting one another. Recognizing the common humanity in us all and empowering hope is a great way to honor the core principles of Mental Health Month: Recovery, Wellness, and Resilience.

How are you finding meaning and resilience in this time?



About Author

Josh Morgan

National Director of Behavioral Health and Whole Person Care

As SAS’ National Director of Behavioral Health and Whole Person Care, Dr. Josh Morgan helps public sector health agencies use data and analytics to support a person-centered approach to improving health outcomes. A licensed psychologist, Dr. Morgan was previously San Bernardino County Department of Behavioral Health’s Chief of Behavioral Health Informatics. His clinical work includes adolescent self-injury, partial hospitalization, and intensive outpatient programs, psychiatric inpatient units and university counseling centers. Dr. Morgan earned his Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies from the University of California, Berkeley, and a PsyD (Doctor of Psychology) in Clinical Psychology with an emphasis in Family Psychology from Azusa Pacific University, and is trained in Dialectical Behavior Therapy.

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