(As seen on WZZM TV 13) Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand for mental health care in West Michigan has increased in recent years.
“We’ve been experiencing this collective languish,” said Chris Rivera, vice president of clinical services at Wedgwood Christian Services in Grand Rapids. “There’s been some level of belief that the pandemic is over … and it just seems to persist, even if it’s not from the standpoint of cases or other statistics related directly to COVID but more of these indirect by-products that we’re seeing.”
According to a 2021 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the percentage of adults in the U.S. with recent symptoms of an anxiety or a depressive disorder increased from 36.4% to 41.5% between August 2020 and February 2021.
Furthermore, the percentage of those reporting an unmet mental health care need increased from 9.2% to 11.7% during the same time frame.
These numbers underscore a growing demand for mental health services in light of the pandemic, and this demand is prevalent in West Michigan as several organizations and providers seek to provide care.
Network180, the Kent County Community Mental Health Authority, works to serve adults, youth and families seeking help with mental health, substance use, or intellectual and developmental disabilities.
The agency became a Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinic in May 2020 under a grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
Beverly Ryskamp, COO at Network180, said the grant couldn’t have come at a better time.
“The CCBHC (designation) allowed us to expand outpatient services for people experiencing mild to moderate behavioral health needs,” Ryskamp said. “As a result, Network180 served hundreds of additional community members in the past couple of years. We are currently pursuing a CCBHC Improvement and Advancement grant and hope to continue expanded access for an additional four years.”
For in-patient services, Network180’s data shows a 15% increase in hospitalizations between 2019-20 and 2021-22.
Prior to the pandemic, about 32% of the people the agency assessed for in-patient hospitalization required such a level of treatment intensity. In the last year, of the people assessed for in-patient hospitalization, 40% demonstrate the need.
To address this increasing demand, Network180 is working on several initiatives, including a partnership with Trinity Health Saint Mary’s to open a Crisis Stabilization Unit (CSU) in spring 2023.
Supported by legislation enacted in 2020, a CSU is a secure, high intensity, short-term alternative to full psychiatric hospitalization at a fraction of the cost.
The CSU can provide involuntary treatment and accept direct drop-offs from law enforcement.
Network180 also is partnering with the city of Grand Rapids to establish dedicated staff capacity for mobile crisis co-response with law enforcement when individuals experiencing a behavioral health crisis encounter police.
“Mobile crisis response teams meet residents where they are — in homes, community settings, or as part of a co-response with law enforcement — meeting critical behavioral health needs in the moment,” Ryskamp said. “Our teams help to de-escalate crises; prevent avoidable arrests, jail stays and emergency department visits; and connect people with ongoing behavioral health services.”
The city of Grand Rapids outlined a $700,000 funding request for mobile co-response efforts in its preliminary fiscal year 2023 budget plan unveiled on May 3. If approved by the city commission, the budget will go into effect in July with the co-response efforts expected to begin in summer 2023.
Alongside these efforts taking place at the city level, other mental and behavioral health care providers in West Michigan have sought out new ways to make care accessible for patients in light of the pandemic.
Telehealth visits have not only served as solutions to barriers such as transportation and child care many patients experience with in-person appointments, but also have proved to be a viable solution to quarantining and pandemic-related safety concerns.
The Business Journal in April reported Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services had a drastic increase in telehealth visits for behavioral health since before the pandemic. In 2019, the hospital had 3,076 virtual visits across all its outpatient clinics.
In 2020, the number of telehealth visits rose to 241,093 and again to 290,431 in 2021. So far, virtual visits from January to mid-March of this year have totaled 53,242.
“When COVID hit, what we’ve seen is a dramatic increase in the need for behavioral health services for our neighbors in West Michigan,” Pine Rest President and CEO Mark Eastburg said in April. “We’re recommitting ourselves to access in order to make an impact on that increased need.”
In addition, Pine Rest, which recently was ranked the third-largest nonprofit behavioral health hospital in the country, has placed more of a focus on community partnerships to provide more access to behavioral health.
The hospital also opened a new psychological consultation center earlier this year after seeing a 40% increase in demand for services at its original center in 2021.
Although a need for mental health care has increased among adults, youth and teens are adding to this demand as well.
According to new data from the CDC, in 2021, more than a third (37%) of high school students in the U.S. reported they experienced poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 44% reported they persistently felt sad or hopeless during the past year.
In West Michigan, Wedgwood Christian Services provides a wide range of care options to help children and teens in addition to families and adults. Dan Gowdy, president and CEO, said it was clear to see early in the pandemic how it was affecting young people.
“We could see the early signs of this ongoing isolation and the stress on young hearts and minds,” Gowdy said.
Gowdy and Rivera cited social media influence, cyberbullying and challenges with ever-changing school and learning formats as primary factors for mental health issues in the teens they serve.
In response, Wedgwood has sought to integrate its in-patient and out-patient programs. Departments now are collaborating to provide more efficient care through pre-existing services and streamlined processes.
Rivera, who was recently promoted to his vice president role at Wedgwood to lead this new approach, said this effort also is helping the organization combat capacity challenges.
“Like every other agency, we’re experiencing a lot of staffing shortages and challenges,” Rivera said. “Why don’t we invest more into our current staff and equip them with additional training and skills?”
With demand being so great, Gowdy said integrated processes will benefit all systems involved.
“The need is overwhelming capacity and creating a log jam of services,” Gowdy said. “People are waiting months for psychiatric care and weeks for traditional outpatient mental health services … the lack of clinicians throughout the system has created a lack of available beds in psychiatric care, creating longer stays in emergency rooms. Wedgwood’s integrated multi-disciplinary approach leverages therapists’ strengths and increases desperately needed clinical capacity.”
Another component of Wedgwood’s integrated approach involves preventive services and providing more education for the community.
“I hope that our efforts and other community efforts will be best addressed by acknowledging that a lot of long-term outcomes really stem from proactive and preventive methods and care,” Rivera said.
Rivera also recognizes how an increased demand for mental health care is making mental health issues easier for others to address and work toward receiving care.
“I think part of why service needs have increased is because we’ve also been collectively working as a community to normalize talking about thoughts and feelings,” he said. “There’s becoming less of a stigma attached with seeking these types of services for mental health.”
As hospitals and organizations in West Michigan strive to make care more accessible, Rivera hopes more people will take advantage of the resources the community has to offer.
“Therapy is good at any stage,” Rivera said. “A lot of people can benefit from preventive therapy … the sooner we address and explore things that may be occupying our headspace, I think there’s a stronger likelihood of preventing a problematic symptom from developing into something more chronic and long-term.”