Guest writer

OPINION | CURTIS BARNETT: A healthier state

Keep overall well-being in mind

This past July, the Blue & You Foundation for a Healthier Arkansas committed $5.29 million to expand behavioral health resources across our state.

This is the largest one-time investment ever made through the Blue & You Foundation, and it all goes toward innovative behavioral health programs led by established and proven Arkansas-based organizations.

Several people have asked me why--in a state with so many critical health needs--the Foundation selected behavioral health as such a high priority. I want to share what motivated us.

Arkansas and the rest of the United States has been experiencing a behavioral health crisis for quite some time. Behavioral health is the broader term used to describe mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety and trauma, and substance-use disorders characterized by overuse of drugs or alcohol.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that more than 25 percent of all U.S. adults experience some type of behavioral health disorder. For the millennial generation, (adults ages 25-40) the rate is nearly one-third. Yet each year, 60 percent of those in need do not receive care for their condition.

The behavioral health crisis has been made worse by the covid-19 pandemic. Research published by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows dramatic increases in rates of anxiety and depression for adults during the pandemic. It also predicts that "today's elevated mental health need will continue well beyond the coronavirus outbreak." In Arkansas, rates of depression and anxiety among adults exceed the national averages.

Behavioral health plays a major role in an individual's ability to maintain good physical health, especially those with chronic health conditions like diabetes, asthma, heart disease and lung disease. A Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report notes that an estimated 84 percent of total U.S. health-care costs can be attributed to the treatment of chronic disease. Arkansas has some of the highest rates of chronic disease in the nation.

Individuals with chronic disease are twice as likely to also have a behavioral health disorder. If someone is depressed, anxious or dealing with addiction, it is hard for them to effectively care for their diabetes. Physical health and behavioral health are intimately connected. You will not be successful in addressing one unless you address the other.

Impacting these statistics and improving quality of life for Arkansans are part of what motivated us to make these investments in behavioral health. But there is also a human side to this crisis that must be addressed.

For those in need of behavioral health care, the challenges can be overwhelming. The behavioral health-care system has struggled to keep up with demand. Too often, patients and their families face a system that is hard to understand, navigate and access. It is a system marked by stigma, fragmented care, high costs and a shortage of clinicians. While we have behavioral health providers doing amazing work in our state, we still have too many people falling through the cracks--undiagnosed and untreated.

Simply put, individuals and families are suffering, and it is affecting all aspects of their lives.

Most of us have been touched by a behavioral health condition, either personally or through a family member or close friend. We have witnessed the struggles and felt the despair of trying to get help. Every life deserves hope! That's the human side of this crisis and the part that motivated us the most.

Behavioral health must be supported in all stages of life--from early childhood, through adolescence and into adulthood. To achieve this, we have focused our investments on programs designed to do three things:

• Build lifelong health, resiliency and well-being for children and families by activating early intervention practices and addressing the drivers of behavioral health conditions.

• Expand the behavioral health-care work force and better integrate behavioral health into primary care, which will improve access.

• Remove barriers to care, like long-standing stigma around receiving behavioral health treatment.

If we are going to help people live better and healthier lives and impact the rate in which overall health-care costs are growing, we must make progress on the behavioral health front. We believe these investments and the organizations we have partnered with are going to make a difference.

We hope other organizations will join us in making behavioral health a priority.

A lifelong resident of Arkansas, Curtis Barnett is a veteran of the health insurance industry, serving for nearly 30 years in local, state and national capacities to help make health care more affordable and compassionate. He has led Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield as president and chief executive officer since 2017.

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