Dr. Nick Dewan, vice president of behavioral health for GuideWell and Florida Blue, recently published a timely Opinion piece in key newspapers across Florida regarding the growing mental health crisis, and what GuideWell and Florida Blue are doing to support the health and well-being of individuals, families, and communities
In recent years, we have seen growing recognition and appreciation for what I’ve witnessed during my three decades as a mental health professional and behavioral health executive – our mental health is directly linked to our physical health, and vice versa. If you’ve ever experienced stress, anxiety, grief, or depression, you’ve likely felt the toll it can take on your body.
More than happiness, mental well-being impacts a deeper sense of purpose and potential, our ability to genuinely flourish. When we connect with and care for others, and are cared about by others, we are more likely to reach an overall positive and hopeful emotional state driven by a sense of belonging and satisfaction with life, work, and relationships. It also means having capacity to handle and adapt to life’s stressors, which is good for the mind and body. At Florida Blue we believe there is no health without mental health, and this guides how we support the people and communities we serve.
Mental Health Crisis
Recently, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared loneliness to be a public health epidemic, calling it an underappreciated crisis with profound consequences – an emergency that is harming individual and societal health. As the United States has done with smoking, obesity, and substance abuse, the Surgeon General said our country must prioritize mental health.
People with depression have a 40 percent higher risk of developing cardiovascular and other diseases according to an article in the nationally recognized Lancet health and science journal, and those with serious mental illness are nearly twice as likely to develop these conditions. The interdependence of physical and mental well-being is driving changes to the health care eco-system, where mental health screening is being integrated with primary care so we can understand and deliver personalized care for the whole person, including their social and cultural needs.
One person dies every three minutes in the United States from alcohol, drugs, or suicide according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One in five adults and one in six youth experience a mental health episode in any given year, and these statistics are getting worse. We do not have enough psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers to efficiently address the current demand, and are facing a significant behavioral health workforce shortage over the next decade. To improve access to a trusted professional, we must not only reduce the wait times for appointments, but also combat the stigma surrounding mental illness. Unfortunately, due to those stigmas, it can take a staggering five to 15 years for someone in need to reach out for help and during that time, a person’s physical and mental well-being is negatively impacted.
While these figures sound alarming, there is help. At Florida Blue we are more than a health insurance company; we’re a health solutions company. That’s why we’ve recently added hundreds of mental health providers to our network and improved both virtual and in person access to care. And, because most mental health care happens in the primary care setting, we’ve incorporated a behavioral health metric into the majority of our contracts with primary care providers. Florida Blue is the first insurer to include this type of accountability and performance measure, so access and quality of care will continue to increase over time.
We also have a majority stake in Lucet, a leading behavioral health company that’s using technology to help people connect quickly to mental health support, on the first call. With this unique "Navigate & Connect" platform, care navigators can schedule appointments in less than five days, and the platform also helps providers track progress towards mental health goals and outcomes.
Through the Florida Blue Foundation, and over the last four years, we have also provided 46 grants totaling $15.3 million to organizations across Florida to help improve local access to and quality of mental health services, particularly for underserved and uninsured communities.
We’re partnering with community nonprofits such as:
Children’s Home Society of Florida in Pensacola, which provides counseling in hundreds of schools, homes, offices and online – wherever children and families are most comfortable
Seniors in Service Tampa Bay, which supports children, elders, caregivers, veterans, adults with disabilities, and hungry families
Caridad Center, Families First of Palm Beach County, Alliance for LGBTQ Youth, and Camillus House in South Florida which provides multiple programs and services for underserved individuals, families, and communities.
Longwood based Crossroads Corral, which supports youth, women, veterans, and families in Central Florida
Jacksonville’s ElderSource which supports caregivers for older adults, especially those with chronic or acute health conditions, and even connecting them to mental health providers when needed.
These innovative and local collaborations accelerate convenient neighborhood access to culturally relevant mental health counseling, and empower people to find meaning, joy, and purpose.
Convening, Collaborating, and Honoring Champions
In April 2023, 700 people gathered for our Florida Blue Foundation’s 19th annual Community Health Symposium and Sapphire Awards which focused this year on improving mental health access and well-being. Organizations and individuals shared ideas for supporting children, seniors, employees, and each other. Our Florida Blue Foundation awarded nine gifts for innovative and successful work to improve mental well-being in Florida.
In North Florida, the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center, which advocates for the rights of at-risk girls and young women, received a first-place award of $100,000. This partner is focused on changing laws, policies, and practices to prevent girls’ initial or deeper involvement in the justice system and drives for the equitable treatment of young women.
In South Florida, the Health Care District of Palm Beach County (HCDPBC) Addiction Model received an award of $100,000 for its innovative public-private partnership with a local hospital and the Palm Beach County Commission that takes an innovative approach to assist people with substance use disorder. Brenda Lopez, social services manager for the Caridad Center received an award for her behavioral health programs at the Boynton Beach clinic which provides medical, vision, dental, and behavioral health care for uninsured children and families of Palm Beach County. Families First of Palm Beach County received an award of $50,000 for its health, mental health, family strengthening, and housing programs. Camillus House received $25,000 for its Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) Team at the Miami homeless services center -- for psychiatrists, nurses, clinicians, and case managers who help homeless individuals struggling with addiction and mental illnesses. The Alliance for LGBTQ Youth received $50,000 for a holistic and comprehensive Mental Health Support therapeutic initiative that addresses specific needs of LGBTQ youth, their families, and community organizations throughout Miami-Dade County.
In West Florida, Seniors in Service received an award of $25,000 to engage volunteers aged 55+ to help meet the needs and challenges of at-risk seniors, veterans, and children throughout Tampa Bay.
In Central Florida, Raquel Tapia-Bell of the Foundation for Foster Children in Winter Park received an award of $50,000 to develop customized programming to help young individuals navigate mental health challenges.
In Northwest Florida, Connie Bookman, a licensed clinical social worker and founder and CEO of Pathways for Change, was a first- place winner and received a $100,000 award to support her organization. Pathways for Change is a nonprofit that provides mental health, social services, and re-entry support for those who have served time in prison. Bookman has long focused on providing practical, life, health, and vocational skills to individuals in need while preserving each person's dignity and hope for a better future.
Reimagining Whole Person Health
Reimagining health care will require new and creative partnerships with organizations inside and outside of health care to improve the overall well-being of individuals of all ages in our community. By working together, we can make lasting changes that increase access and meet the unique needs of our community members.
As neighbors, leaders, family members, and as individuals, we must recognize that whole-person health includes mind and body. Recognizing, appreciating, and addressing both the physical and mental needs we’re facing now and in the future is the only way we will truly flourish.