Leaders at Northeast Pennsylvania’s medical school say ongoing initiatives to increase the number of mental health care providers locally and to incorporate behavioral health care at physical health care providers are important factors in addressing the opioid epidemic.

Dr. Leighton Huey, associate dean for behavioral health integration and community care transformation at Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine, says that because of a stigma associated with mental health issues, individuals often don’t seek mental health treatment on their own.

That’s why it’s important for physical health care providers to be familiar with symptoms of mental health disorders and incorporate efforts to check for and recognize the possibility of such disorders during routine office evaluations.

The school’s Behavioral Health Initiative seeks in part to link behavioral and physical health care, he said.

“Integrated care is the best way to evaluate and address the problem,” he said.

Huey said there’s a symposium on the initiative planned for Nov. 16 that will be open to the professional community and probably broadcast throughout the Geisinger Health System.

Terri Lacey, a registered nurse in charge of the school’s Behavioral Health Initiative, said there is a behavioral health workforce shortage that’s “not unique to Northeastern Pennsylvania. It’s a national issue.”

According to the ninth annual County Health Rankings, released earlier this year by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, there are far fewer mental health providers in Northeastern Pennsylvania than the statewide average.

The ratio of residents to mental health providers is 2,190 to 1 in Carbon County, 1,480 to 1 in Schuylkill County, 1,100 to 1 in Luzerne County, and 680 to 1 in Lackawanna County; statewide, it is 560 to 1.

A consultant for the Geisinger medical college determined that a seven-county region of Northeast Pennsylvania would have to increase its number of psychiatrists by 40 percent to meet current need.

Within the past two years, the medical college initiated a psychiatry residency program to train new doctors in the desperately needed specialty, Lacey said.
Once all four classes are filled, the school will graduate four new psychiatrists per year in Wilkes-Barre and Scranton.
Huey said one study shows the magnitude of the drug abuse problem among young people.

It shows that 9 to 10 percent of children age 12 to 17 use some kind of illicit drug, and that doesn’t include marijuana.
“It’s a pretty big problem,” Huey said, adding that there are probably not enough avenues in the community to address both substance abuse and mental health.

“This is an area in the epicenter of the opioid epidemic. I think it’s not so much a failure of communities, but the overwhelming nature of the epidemic,” he said.

Training teachers and others in the community to recognize signs of both substance abuse and mental health disorders is important, he said.

Lacey said the medical school is implementing an initiative by the National Council for Mental Health called Mental Health First Aid in which medical students will be trained to go into the community and teach others the skills to respond to the signs of mental illness and substance use.

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570-821-2110, @cvmocarsky