Increasing access to behavioral health care through public/private partnerships

Nine years ago, I was driving home during Atlanta rush hour concerned I would not make it in time to pick up my 2-year-old from daycare. Traffic was heavy and I was already running late after handling a crisis at work. Suddenly, I felt crushing chest pain that radiated down both arms and up into my jaw.

Instinctively I pulled off the highway, turned into a convenience store, bought an aspirin, chewed it, and looked at the store clerk and said, "Please call 911. I am having a heart attack."

Within seconds, bystanders who also seemed to know what to do stepped in to keep me calm. One of them even contacted my family. First responders soon arrived. EMS and fire worked together seamlessly to get me safely through gridlocked traffic to the best cardiac care in the city. Less than an hour later I was in a Cath lab. Despite indeed having a heart attack that surprised everyone, I was home with my family three days later.

After my health scare, I started to wonder what my experience may have been if instead of chest pain, I was suicidal, experiencing psychosis or a drug overdose. The response to chest pain is predictable no matter where you live. We demand it. This is not the case for behavioral health emergencies, which can also be fatal.

Without coordinated behavioral health crisis systems, communities must rely on the system designed for medical emergencies. A call to 911 for a mental health emergency often results in law enforcement involvement or a trip to the nearest emergency department. Commonly, patients experience long waits for a psychiatric bed that might have been prevented if the individual could have accessed immediate care from a hotline, in their own home from a mobile crisis team or in an urgent walk-in center specifically designed for their needs.

To be sure, 911 is a life-saving service for people with emergency physical health issues. However, we haven’t had this equally important service for those with mental health issues, which are intrinsically linked to a person’s whole health. Until now.

Coming in July 2022, a nationwide three-digit number for behavioral health emergencies, 988, will launch. To prepare for that, states need to be ready to implement a comprehensive and collaborative system of care. It’s a massive undertaking that requires cooperation, collaboration, and communication between stakeholders in both the public and private sectors. Effective public/private partnerships between states and care management entities are key to ensuring that the right infrastructure is in place, funding streams are optimized, and local resources are properly leveraged to provide care for all people. 

Beacon Health Options* is at the forefront of the nationwide crisis system, working closely with states to evaluate existing infrastructure, leverage existing resources, provide guidance on how to fill gaps in service, and braid funding to get it all paid for. To learn more, visit our crisis solutions page.

* Today, we are Carelon Behavioral Health, but when we wrote this blog, we were Beacon Health Options.