A new initiative aims to offer Howard County residents new resources and better access related to mental health.

The county will add a behavioral health specialist to the health department’s Community Care Teams, which work closely with Howard County General Hospital (HCGH) to serve residents who are frequently hospitalized. HCGH also will pilot a program with Way Station to provide outpatient crisis stabilization services within 24-48 hours of an individual accessing care.

In addition, Howard County Mental Health Authority’s online provider directory will be updated, so individuals in need of care have access to correct provider information on a variety of electronic devices.

The changes, implemented through a partnership the county has formed with The Horizon Foundation and HCGH, are based on recommendations made by a Behavioral Health Task Force composed of people from many sectors who are concerned about the public’s mental health.

Leah Blain, behavioral health director at Chase Brexton Health Services’ Columbia Center and a member of the task force, said the initiative represents the fruits of a remarkable collaboration across the public and private sectors.

“On the task force, we have consumers, primary care providers, mental health practitioners, people in private practice — all kinds of folks who are touched in many ways by the challenges we have when it comes to ensuring access to mental health services for everyone,” she said.

Early Intervention Vital

When it comes to treating mental illness, early intervention is key, said another task force member, Mark Donovan, director and CEO of Congruent Counseling Services, of Columbia. “We know that people with mental health issues tend to utilize not only mental health services, but more health services in general than anybody else,” he said.

On that note, Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman included funding for the initiative in his fiscal ’16 Operating Budget, which was released on April 20.

The Behavioral Health Task Force, created in 2014, worked for six months before submitting its formal recommendations to Kittleman in March. The recommendations were made “with the hope of building a robust behavioral health system that values prevention, early identification and intervention for those at risk, and integrated care and treatment for people living with behavioral health conditions,” stated the report.

The task force was chaired by Nicolette Highsmith Vernick, president and CEO of The Horizon Foundation, and Donna Wells, executive director of the Mental Health Authority.

The task force found that the county has already shown increased support for behavioral health crisis services, such as a mobile crisis team at Grassroots and mental health staffing within the police department; but the group also emphasized that there are still many goals still to be reached to ensure a full continuum of behavioral health services.

Continuum of Care

HCGH President Steven Snelgrove said he applauded the county for starting to work on the recommendations of the task force to address gaps in the continuum of care.

“We strive to balance treating patients entering the emergency room with acute illnesses and injuries with patients entering the emergency room with a mental health crisis,” he said. “Having a continuum of care means that patients who have received treatment then have access to follow-up within 48 hours.”

HCGH offers inpatient psychiatric services for adults, as well as emergency psychiatric services for adults, adolescents and children. The Howard County Public School System also has a psychological services program, and the county has what the task force called “a sufficient supply” of mental health professionals in the community. But many community mental health providers either do not take or have difficulty taking private insurance coverage.

“Urgent access to outpatient care is nearly impossible … leading to crowding of the emergency department at Howard County General Hospital. Primary care is often a gateway for people needing behavioral health services, but primary care providers often feel ill-equipped to respond. Publicly-funded substance abuse services are at risk, as grant funding is replaced by a fee-for-service reimbursement model,” stated the task force report.

Affecting Stability

Mental health needs are too pervasive in our community to go untreated, said Karen Butler, director of Howard County Department of Social Services.

“Mental health issues can range in severity — or lack thereof — in such varied ways, and can affect one’s stability so significantly,” said Butler, who is also a member of the task force.

“We have noticed this in the way our Department of Social Services customers are sometimes unable to stabilize themselves enough to comply with our program requirements, or maintain stable employment so they have high recidivism rates in returning to our programs and services,” she said. “We noticed it so much we engaged a local mental health provider for training to help us understand what we were dealing with and how to handle it.”

The Department of Social Services will implement this training in the next few months, Butler added.