NWA EDITORIAL | The state’s push for improved mental health access is promising

“Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and more difficult to bear. The frequent attempt to hide mental pain increases the burden: it is easier to say ‘My tooth hurts’ than to say “My heart is broken.”

-CS Lewis

It’s not a headline you see often.

“Mental health care at the forefront of the state,” declared the front cover story of the Northwest Arkansas Section in last Sunday’s edition.

For decades, the plight of those struggling with mental illness has too often been left behind, with the stove control knob on the lowest setting.

At least when it comes to the Arkansas Department of Human Services, there appears to be some hope for Arkansans needing care for behavioral and mental health issues.

State agency officials have told lawmakers they are nearly done finalizing changes to the state’s Medicaid program to expand that care. A task force set up by state lawmakers in 2021 has spent more than a year studying mental health issues.

Such an analysis could not come at a more important time.

Early this year, President Joe Biden acknowledged the national battle with mental illness intensified by the pandemic, with a growing number of adults and children reporting symptoms of anxiety or depression. The White House announced a national mental health strategy to strengthen the health care system’s capacity to respond and connect more Americans to mental health services.

The pandemic mainly affected young people, whose school routines were disrupted in a way that interrupted learning and promoted social isolation. The Biden administration reported a 51 percent increase in the number of adolescent girls seen in the emergency room for attempted suicide.

And, of course, we continue to see the pros and cons of social media, including troubling effects on the users of these platforms. Whether through bullying or targeted, hateful comments or manipulation by others, social media can be a fertile ground for negativity with an open orbit to permeate people’s lives.

These are just the developments that have exacerbated mental health problems. All the “normal” root causes of those challenges also remain. Hereditary disorders, trauma, poverty, grief, substance abuse – all of these can be part of the mental health landscape.

Mental Health America, a national nonprofit organization, ranked Arkansas 39th in the nation in prevalence of mental illness and access to care.

Expanding care for thousands of people is the reason for planned changes to Medicaid, a program to help pay for medically necessary medical services for low-income Arkansans. The Department of Human Services administers the Medicaid program.

The agency is proposing many changes to the state’s manuals and codes that govern how Medicaid pays for services and treatments. That is expected to fund more preventive care and screenings.

Agency officials, as reported in this paper, explained that higher reimbursement rates for community treatment, care for adults with severe mental illness, and intensive home care for children will provide more clinical oversight for home care.

“Over there [are] a lot of people are getting service, but maybe it’s not working for them — they’re getting unneeded service,” said Melissa Weather-ton, director of the developmental disability division for the department. “We have to be strategic about this now because we have more people, more needs and fewer employees.”

The plan includes the use of U.S. Rescue Plan Act funding to retain and recruit behavioral health workers.

State Representative DeAnn Vaught, who sponsored the legislation that created the task force, said legislative changes will be needed during the upcoming legislative session to implement some necessary changes ranging from further responses to labor shortages, telemedicine and ways to provide more mental health care in schools.

“We’ve made great strides, but there’s still a lot to do,” said Vaught, a Republican from Horatio.

Vaught said several pieces of legislation will likely be needed during the session to address the issue.

“Mental health will be a big priority,” she said.

That’s great news in a state and nation that have often responded to mental health care with apathy or at least viewed it as an issue overshadowed by more immediate or politically desirable issues.

However, mental health figures prominently in many of the headlines that almost everyone would like to reduce, whether it be about violence or crime. There’s plenty of reason why it’s a front-line issue, not least because it’s the right thing to do.

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