Member Spotlight: Mental Health America of Greater Houston

By Perdita Henry

It wasn’t long ago that mental health was only discussed reluctantly. People displaying mental health difficulties were often believed to have a weak mind or constitution, and their chances for seeking help were often dependent on their class, community, and status.

Now, you’re liable to hear someone on the morning news discussing the importance of mental health as you sip your coffee. Self-care is all over social media, and casual conversations about seeking therapy are much more likely to come up during brunch with friends. People are finding empowerment in being honest about their mental health experiences. Thanks to increased awareness, the stigma associated with mental health is lifting in some communities. But, we still have a way to go in making sure that everyone knows the signs of mental health challenges, that no one feels the sting of dismissal, and that there are resources available for those in need.

In 1954, philanthropist Ima Hogg, established Mental Health America of Greater Houston, the longest serving mental health and advocacy organization in the area. MHA GH is dedicated to “promoting mental health services in our community in areas such as the children and school support, veterans, integrated health care, women’s health, and suicide prevention,” President and CEO, Renae Vania-Tomczak says. “Through collaboration with local organizations, we have effectively impacted the community with our mission to provide mental health solutions for all residents of the Greater Houston area.”

I sat down with Vania-Tomczak to talk about MHA GH focus on the policy and system changes that need to happen, the availability of support services, and how mental health effects the community at large.

How does mental health and access to mental health services affect a community?

Mental health services are not just about addressing serious mental illness; it’s also important for all community members to deal with stress and improve their general health. From an integrated care perspective, if mental health services are not available, then an individual’s whole health can’t be fully addressed. We know that mental health needs are often present in the context of chronic illness. We need access to mental health services to ensure the overall well-being and health of a person and their community.

The B4Stage4 approach to health and well-being works proactively to prevent a crisis from occurring. We focus on intervention and how to help people become aware in order to address their mental health and overall well-being early, as well as to create viable solutions to individuals in need of recovery care and services.

Low-income women past 60-days postpartum are screened for postpartum depression but only receive limited treatment for it under Healthy Texas Women. How does your Women’s Mental Health Program step into that gap?

Current data suggests that one- out of-seven new mothers suffers from a postpartum mood disorder. We know a mother’s health directly correlates to her child’s health, making it imperative to aid this population as quickly and effectively as possible. MHA GH is actively participating in local work groups on women’s maternal health initiatives. We are all working together as we try to determine best practices for patient communications. We work with providers – particularly pediatricians, as they are the ones who see mom most often – to screen for postpartum mood disorders and encourage mothers to reach out earlier if they need help.

Our team focuses on implicit bias with providers to share how they interact with patients and to reduce stigma, which may affect a mother’s willingness to reach out for help. We know that after 60 days postpartum three of the top five factors affecting maternal mortality rates are behavioral health related. That’s why we advocate for women.

MHA GH is keeping this in the forefront of the conversations to ensure we are implementing training and awareness for our providers as well as the community. Through our integrated care program, we work with several clinics, health centers, and charity organizations to embed these behavioral health services in multiple settings for greater accessibility. Individuals who may not have access to coverage, can still receive care at these locations.

On a legislative level, MHA GH has been part of coalitions built to advocate to extend Medicaid coverage for post-partum women beyond the existing 60-day window. Most post-partum mood disorders are not caught within that 60-day coverage period and Healthy Texas Women has limited service delivery to aid new mothers in need – leaving many mothers seeking acute care at emergency rooms and other state-or-county funded centers. While Medicaid extension is an uphill fight within the Texas Legislature, a solution must be created to help new mothers care for themselves and their babies. We are exploring options both to re-work existing Medicaid parameters legislatively and to collaborate with community partners to develop solutions outside of the Texas Legislature.

You offer multiple educational opportunities, like Mental Health First Aid, Are the Kids Alright?, and more. Why is it important for organizations and community leaders to participate in these types of courses?

All of us benefit from the improvement of mental wellness, but we know that one-in-five people will experience a mental health issue during their lifetime. This means any individual that works, lives, or interacts with other people will encounter someone who has mental health needs. Unfortunately, many of these issues remain unidentified and un-addressed.

It’s important for all of us to take a leadership role in our loved ones’ well-being. Most people struggling will not actively seek out a mental health professional. Being skilled in responding to mental health issues is the first step for caring for our neighbors, family, friends, and community members.

We encourage everyone to be familiar with the 3 Rs: Recognize the basic signs and symptoms of a mental health concern; Respond in an appropriate way that will help someone feel comfortable; and know how to connect someone to care by Referral.

Our goal is not to turn educators, case managers, and community members into mental health professionals, but instead to train as many people as possible in Mental Health First Aid. Many people are afraid to talk about mental illness or any aspect of mental health. If our community leaders and organizations take the lead in mental health conversations, it will effectively eliminate the fear of the topic, so we can improve our city’s well-being. In the same way that we see Mayor Turner prepare Houstonians for storms, we would like to see leaders advocate and share appropriate resources that aid community members in shaping their mental and physical well-being.

From the Mental Health America of Greater Houston perspective, how would one create a meaningful referral system between, women’s health, primary care, and mental health professionals?

In an integrated care service environment, women’s health, primary care, and mental health are not separate. Behavioral health becomes embedded into other care systems. Our integrated care initiative exists to create partnerships, provide leadership and vision, advocate and educate, and provide customized assistance to implement sustainability efforts that promote integrated care. Referral is more about collaboration among providers instead of sending the patient somewhere else, which we know creates logistical challenges.

How have you gone about gaining referrals in the community? What were the challenges and successes in doing so?

While Mental Health America of Greater Houston is not a provider of direct client services, our role is to help build capacity, support providers, and create links to coordinated care through our integrated care initiative.

Why is it important for your organization to be a TWHC member?

MHA GH focuses on the health of mothers because they are the caretakers of families and advance their communities. If the woman is healthy then her children, spouse and family will be.” Regarding the Texas Women’s Healthcare Coalition, Mental Health America of Greater Houston believes that a women’s mental health and well-being is one of the most valuable assets in families and communities. It is extremely important for us to invest in and improve the lives of women and mothers in our community because that helps everyone. If you want to make a family and community better, then you have to work on mom first.

What does an ideal future for women’s health look like according to Mental Health America of Greater Houston?

The ideal future is healthy women and healthy moms that feel mentally and physically well and equipped to lead healthy lives based on mental and physical wellness, which in turn creates healthier communities. To achieve that, we need accessible and affordable care for women that they feel safe to access. To reduce the stigma associated with mental health, it’s important that women don’t feel shame and that her needs can be readily identified. Often women put themselves last when it comes to their health and well-being. In an ideal future, they would put themselves first because this is what is best for their family and community.

For more information on Mental Health of America Greater Houston, visit their website or follow them on Twitter.