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Asst. US Secretary Of Health Rachel Levine meets with Lehigh Valley mental health providers | Lehigh Valley Regional News

St. Luke’s University Health Network hosted a behavioral health roundtable with US Assistant Secretary Of Health Rachel Levine as a special guest.

The event gathered health experts, politicians and community members to talk about issues facing the mental health system.

“We are seeing such mental health challenges, particularly among our youth,” said Levine. “I’m very pleased to be the co-chair of the Behavioral Health Coordinating Council for the secretary and we’re looking at all aspects of the behavioral health system and ways we can improve it for patient care.”

Local officials shared their experiences with Levine, saying that as the country comes out of the pandemic, they are seeing a spike in mental health cases.

St. Luke’s says it’s seen a 36-percent increase in cases, including children and adolescents.

“What’s critical right now is if we can provide services today to someone who is eight or nine years old or decreasing their anxiety and their likelihood of partaking in substances or entering into a cycle of addiction. That’s critical,” said Dr. Jody McCloud Missner , St. Luke’s Behavioral and Psychiatric Administrator.

KidsPeace, which serves about 8,000 kids in eight states, says it too is seeing a dramatic rise in cases. And like other providers, it’s struggling to find the funding and the staff to meet the demand.

“The mental health industry at large has been underfunded and therefore we have not been able to keep pace with the wage inflation that is happening in our country,” said Michael Slack, President and CEO of KidsPeace.

Slack says KidsPeace is talking to legislators about the need for more funding and educating the public about the job opportunities and room for career growth at the non-profit.

“We have hundreds of people who come and work for KidPeace and spend their entire career with us,” said Slack. “They start and direct care they work up. They may go into nursing, they may go into social work, they may become a doctor, they may go into administration. But they can make a career and it is a very rewarding career, they can save lives, literally.”

The Lehigh Valley is just one of many stops on a national listening tour for Levine, who says she’s also sharing the Biden administration’s vision for transforming the mental health system and addressing the challenges she’s hearing.

“We need sustainable funding and we need to be able to improve the workforce, the IT capabilities, etc. through public health now and in the future,” said Levine.

Levine says part of that challenge is improving tele-health access and equity for all who need mental health services.

“To be able to do telehealth you have to have either cellular service or broadband,” said Levine. “So we have to address that for health equity point of view as well.”

Dr. James A. James, the interim Chair for Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at St. Luke’s, says he has only been in the Lehigh Valley for six years, but this is the worst he has seen the mental health demand.

James says he believes the pandemic is only part of the problem that led to this point. He says the stigma surrounding mental health has not diminished for some.

“In order to make sure that we really address this we have got to get people early, we have got to make people feel that they can talk and not feel stigmatized about reaching out for help,” said James. “And then making sure that they get the right level of care.”

Health providers say if you or a family member are struggling with mental health issues, you should talk to your doctor or call the National Alliance on Mental Illness hotline at 1-800-950-6264.

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