Improving mental health, substance use treatment

Readers of this column will by now be aware that United Way focuses on fighting for the health, education and economic mobility of every person in our community. This month, I have chosen to address a major new initiative in Greater Nashua which will, over the next few years, bring much needed change and resources in the field of behavioural health treatment. Of course, this is a very complex and difficult problem, so future columns will revisit various aspects of this initiative in more detail.

The initiative itself is known by various names, but most commonly the IDN, or Integrated Delivery Network. The IDN is an effort which is taking place throughout the state of New Hampshire, which has been divided into seven different IDN regions.

Our region in Greater Nashua is known as IDN 3 and encompasses the communities of Nashua, Amherst, Litchfield, Milford, Wilton, Brookline, Lyndeborough, Mont Vernon, Hollis, Mason, Hudson, Merrimack and Pelham.

As a statewide initiative, there will be $150 million coming into New Hampshire over the next 5 years with a portion allocated to our region of approximately $17.7 million. These funds are to be used by the IDN to address various aspects of mental health as well as substance use disorder (SUD). The concept is to fund projects and initiatives which will make treatment more effective by building better systems of cooperation between providers.

Over the past year, under the leadership of Southern New Hampshire Health, our IDN has put forth a project plan that is currently being evaluated for implementation. The IDN, in addition to Southern New Hampshire Health, consists of more than 30 different organizations in our community with a stake in behavioral health.

I recently asked Dr. Cynthia Whitaker, Chief of Services for Greater Nashua Mental Health, to describe what the IDN’s work means to her.

She said, "The Nashua IDN provides a unique opportunity for collaboration and partnership. It has brought many organizations in the community together to talk about ways to improve all of the services that we provide to the people of the Nashua region to promote all aspects of health."

What will this mean for our community? As we work together, we are striving to do the following through our IDN:

Focus on prevention. Focus on treatment that will get the best results for a person, including mind and body, by increasing awareness of the relationship between physical and mental health. Improve communication and coordination between different places where people get care and the people that deliver care.

Give easier access to appointments so people can get care when they need it.

Make sure that community members and leaders know where people can go for this kind of care.

Make the most of available funds by getting people help before they are in crisis.

Reduce the stigma around mental illness and substance use disorder to help people to live healthy lives.

Anybody who is even remotely familiar with the world of behavioral health will know that this is a pretty tall order, but I am extremely encouraged by the amazing group of organizations who are truly committed to moving this process forward.

Dr. Stephanie Wolf-Rosenblum, of Southern New Hampshire Health, said the IDN "is a unique opportunity to engage the provider and consumer community in a collaborative effort to address mental health and SUD together. In order to improve the health and well-being of those who are suffering from these illnesses and those who support them, we will need to find new and different approaches that create a more inclusive, more coordinated and more sustainable approach. This can only be accomplished if we take this journey together."

While there is indeed much more that could be said about this initiative, the idea today is to give you a taste of what this project is about. There will be more to come on this. Of course, the IDN will not solve all of our problems, and certainly not overnight, but what it will do – I am certain – is have a long-term lasting impact on those suffering in our community with behavioural health issues.

I asked Susan Stearns from NAMI-NH to reflect on what the IDN’s work will ultimately mean to the people in our community.

What she said to me was something that too many of us can relate to: "I have a family member who lives with serious mental illness, so the work of the Nashua IDN means a great deal to me on a personal level. People with mental illness die, on average, 25 years earlier than those in the general population – often from preventable and treatable health conditions. The work of the Nashua IDN offers the promise of a transformed system of care that will help people like my loved one access the comprehensive care necessary for them to live full, healthy lives in the community. The IDN partners are providers of healthcare, trained in science and evidence based practices. For families like mine, though, families affected by mental illness, the IDN partners are providers of hope."

Personally, my family has also been touched directly by mental illness, and in-fact just last year I lost a cousin who I loved very much to the disease, so what Susan says resonates deeply with me. As always, thank you for taking the time to read these words, and for finding ways to LIVE UNITED in our community.

Mike Apfelberg is President of the United Way of Greater Nashua and Chair of the Community Engagement Committee of the Nashua IDN.