A major investment is being made by Providence St. Joseph Health to address a pressing need

By Nicole Gregory     7/6/2016

Right on the heels of the exciting announcement of a partnership between Providence Health Systems and St. Joseph Health comes this one: The newly formed group—now called Providence St. Joseph Health—has created the Institute for Mental Health and Wellness, supported by an initial $100 million investment that will be used to identify and advance innovative solutions in mental health.

It could not come at a more critical time.

A 2013 report coming from the California Healthcare Foundation found that nearly 1 in 6 California adults has a mental health need, and fewer than half of them are being treated for it. In Orange County, 3.7% adults suffer from serious mental illness, according to the report.

People with mental illness can slip into drug and addiction, lose their homes, tax emergency room services, commit crimes that land them in prison, and pose a safety threat to themselves and others.


Addressing mental health

It’s clear that The Institute for Mental Health and Wellness will address a widespread community need.

How did the idea come about? “It is an answer to a question,” explains Annette Walker, interim CEO of St. Joseph Health. “Our Sponsors—who are Sisters and lay people—said to leaders at both Providence Health and Services and St. Joseph Health, What could we do better in this partnership that we weren’t already doing? We weren’t compelled to join just to be bigger. We joined so that we can better serve the broad needs in our community—especially for those most in need. This is our responsibility as a health care organization, and it’s deeply personal for me and for our caregivers. We are better together.”

It didn’t take long to land on a choice. “Mental health is one of the biggest health challenges facing our country,” says Walker. To lead the way, an advisory panel of mental health experts will convene, chaired by Maureen Bisognano, recently retired president and CEO of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement; she will work alongside Rod Hochman, M.D., president & CEO of Providence St. Joseph Health.

Even when treatment for mental health problems is available, people who need it often don’t know about it or can’t find it.

“One of the most challenging health issues facing our communities today is access to effective mental health services,” Hochman is quoted as saying in a press release.

Grants will be given to a variety of programs, both within and without the system, says Walker. Some will be new and some will build upon existing programs within the Providence St Joseph Health hospitals and clinics.

“We have always seen health care as caring for the whole person—that means body, mind and spirit,” says Walker. “Here in Orange County, Mission Hospital Laguna Beach is just one example of the work we’re doing to address mental health.” The hospital offers medical and psychological evaluations, individual and family counseling and in-patient and out-patient care. “We hope to enhance these efforts,” she says. “This could mean programs for awareness and education about mental health issues, innovations in care, advocating for public policies, and research.”


Preventing homelessness and addiction

 The results could be far-reaching.

Depression, bi-polar disorder, post-traumatic stress syndrome and schizophrenia are just a few forms of mental illness which can debilitate a person, and negatively impact his or her family. Yet unlike other diseases, people with mental illness are still stigmatized, misunderstood and feared. Add poverty to the mix and their chances for getting treatment are lowered.

This is where the original vision of the Sisters of St. Joseph and the Sisters of Providence come in. Treatment for mental illness is a “cornerstone of our missions … addressing significant social, community and health needs of our most vulnerable populations,” according to Hochman.

Untreated, mental illness can be catastrophic—sufferers lose jobs, relationships and the ability to care for themselves, making them vulnerable to becoming homeless. In fact, up to 25% of all homeless people suffer from severe mental illness, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Addiction to drugs and alcohol is another consequence for untreated mental illness. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, treating mental health problems could prevent addiction. “Drug related overdoses, suicide and depression are on the rise,” says Walker. “This is one of the reasons that mental health services hit home with us when the leaders were talking. It’s one of our greatest needs and we are committed to doing more.”


An investment in the future

Time will not be wasted getting programs implemented. “We hope that some of these investments will play out in the first year,” Walker says. “We’re working with experts as well as local community organizations, advocacy groups and government leaders to assess local mental health needs and provide feedback on the most effective implementation of the initiative.”

The goal is to bring in experts and partners from inside and outside the new Providence St. Joseph Health partnership to the Institute for Mental Health and Wellness, to make sure it is effective and continues long into the future.