Mental health crisis spurs action

Pine Rest, Holland Hospital among those hiring to meet overwhelming needs.
Pine Rest’s Urgent Care Center last month experienced its single biggest day ever for acute mental health services. Courtesy Pine Rest

Local organizations are stepping up to meet an ever-growing demand for individuals experiencing ongoing struggles with mental health.

According to a Household Pulse Survey done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly one-third of Michiganders reported experiencing symptoms of depression and/or anxiety between Sept. 29 and Oct. 11, 2021.

Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services is hiring 200 people to address the increased need for services.

“Just to give you a sense, if you want to see a psychiatrist, you’re going to wait two to four months, if you want to see a social worker, you’re going to wait two to four months … and it’s all because demand is just skyrocketing,” said Bob Nykamp, vice president and COO of Pine Rest. “And we describe it as the epidemic following the pandemic. We’ve seen a significant increase in behavioral health; outpatient demand, inpatient demand, all of our services.”

Nykamp said during the last week of October, Pine Rest’s Psychiatric Urgent Care Center experienced its single biggest day for services.

Currently, Pine Rest has 300 outpatient clinicians on staff, and Nykamp said they are looking to double that amount through multiple hiring phases and facility expansions to provide West Michigan with the care it needs. A majority of Pine Rest’s new hires will be brought on to eliminate the increased wait times patients are experiencing.

The organization has continued to use services such as telehealth care, which Nykamp said has been incredibly beneficial in fueling its growth. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Pine Rest has since moved many of its outpatient clinicians to providing care from their home offices. More recently, the organization gave its outpatient staff the option to continue to serve their patients solely through telehealth services at their home offices either permanently or on a hybrid basis, leaving Pine Rest with additional office space for those who wish to work on-site with patients, and also leaving room for the influx of new hires.

Employee Assistance Program figures at Pine Rest also have shown a drastic year-over-year increase comparing FY 2019-20 numbers to FY 2020-21, noting the program was well-used even prior to the pandemic. Comparisons show an increase in counseling appointments by 104%, as well as the number of clients increasing by 17%. The organization also provided on-site or virtual critical incident response services following workplace tragedies at a rate of more than once per week. In addition, mental health and wellness training presentations increased by 25%, and financial consultations grew by 39%. Through its EAP program, the organization currently serves 379 organizations, covering over 60,000 individuals and their families. Industry standards multiply the individual care numbers by 2.5 to account for their families. Using this formula, Pine Rest is serving approximately 150,000 individuals through its EAP program alone. Looking ahead, Pine Rest said it is showing a 25% increase in new EAP contracts that are set to begin on Jan. 1, 2022.

“I think any employer who doesn’t have an employee assistance program, and it doesn’t need to be through Pine Rest, but they should be looking at including that in their benefits. It does give their employees 24/7 counseling services if they need them,” Nykamp said. “… We’re encouraging our employers that we work with in our EAP to just over-communicate with your employees right now. Just be transparent and communicate as much as possible.”

According to Nykamp, EAPs are inexpensive to the employer and expand to financial advice and counseling, legal advice, and provide shorter wait times for care.

A 2021 policy and benefits survey conducted by The Employers’ Association (TEA) of Kent County shows 75% of respondents out of 139 surveyed companies said they offer EAPs in their benefits packages. Another survey regarding post-COVID-19 issues, also conducted by TEA in 2021, sought to explore questions focused on compensation, including recruitment and retention efforts, and what employers are doing to help employees with mental health. Of 113 survey respondents, 64% of companies said they were offering or are going to offer EAP services including: covering all sick days; offering one-on-one on-site counseling sessions; waiving insurance copays for EAP sessions; supporting leaves of absence; providing more education and information about what services are available; and improving communication with leaders doing more “walkthroughs.”

Holland Hospital also is rising to the occasion to meet increased mental health treatment demands.

In August, Holland Hospital launched its Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP) to bridge the gap between inpatient and outpatient care. The PHP program serves patients who need more intensive treatment than outpatient therapy and can be safe at home between PHP sessions. Patients attend six hours per day, five days per week and receive treatment from a team of service providers including a psychiatrist, behavioral health therapists, nurses, occupational therapists and a chaplain. In its first year, the organization’s PHP program served over 200 patients and reported showing significant improvements after care. Now, Holland Hospital also plans to double its care capacity.

“So really, even pre-pandemic, there was a communitywide need for more access to behavioral health treatment than our community has capacity for,” said Mikaela Andrea, director of behavioral health for Holland Hospital. “Routinely there are patients that are boarded in emergency departments because inpatient psychiatric beds are not readily available. There are long waits for outpatient treatment, and that was happening even before the pandemic. And now, with the pandemic … almost two years we’ve been living in this, we’ve noticed an increase in demand, and that’s through all levels of care.”

Both Holland Hospital and Pine Rest noted common stressors including job loss or job reduction, which eventually led to a sharp contrast of employee shortages and a difficult recruitment environment, translating into more employees working longer hours, doing tasks they’re not used to, increased work volume, burnout and compounding at-home stressors including child care needs and social isolation. Patients also faced financial strains, grief due to loss related to COVID-19, and myriad other contributing factors leading to an increase in anxiety and depression.

Health care providers themselves also have experienced increased symptoms of anxiety and depression, according to Andrea.

“I think (the increase in mental health needs) are common in a lot of industries, not just in health care, but obviously people working in health care have had, they’ve really kind of carried the brunt of a lot of this, both because of the amount of critical illness, the amount of tragic death, the amount of, you know, just constant operational changes because of COVID, just pretty much constant change, constant challenges,” Andrea said.

As Holland Hospital addresses increased needs in the community, the organization also has looked internally to help its own employees who are struggling.

“Holland Hospital has done a lot to respond to that, and to proactively encourage our workforce to care for themselves, both in terms of tangible resources, like our employee emotional support hotline and our EAP employee assistance program, which offers cost-free counseling services to employees, but also just in terms of honoring and respecting people’s limits,” Andrea said. “Our leaders talk with employees all the time about how they’re doing, what they need, how organizationally we can support them to continue doing the work that is so critical and important in our community.”

In addition to doubling its capacity for PHP care, Holland Hospital also offers inpatient behavioral health and in-person and telehealth outpatient behavioral health services and support from psychiatrists, nurse practitioners, psychologists and multiple therapists. The hospital’s emergency department also has social work staff available 24/7 and behavioral health specialists embedded into its primary care practices.

“I think the good news is, the stigma of mental health is lessening, and I think that’s something that’s been really impactful,” Nykamp said. “I think … (for) the younger generation, behavioral health care is not taboo, … they talk about it no different than they talk about knee surgery, and I think that is absolutely wonderful. I think that is also impacting the growth and the need for behavioral health care, because people are more likely to access it. I just find that as a very encouraging trend.”

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