New initiative aims to increase mental health services for uninsured Virginians

RICHMOND, Va. (WAVY) — Sophia Lakis is a client at Health Brigade in Richmond. She says access to health services played a key role in relocating from South Carolina to Virginia.

“It was a godsend I guess you could say. You know, I really needed something like this in my life,” said Lakis.

Health Brigade is part of Virginia’s health care safety net (HSN), made up of free and charitable clinics and community health centers.

For Lakis, having access to mental health services hasn’t always been easy. She, like many Virginians, is uninsured.

“I can’t necessarily afford it, so having a place I can go to where that isn’t necessarily an issue is really helpful to me just knowing that I’m going to be healthy,” she said.

Lakis says access to care is crucial.

“I think there’s a really big misconception that mental health is a first world problem. It’s absolutely not. People from all social and economic groups suffer from the same kind of stresses,” she said. “If you have anxiety and depression, you shouldn’t have to deal with that alone. That’s not something you can just get over by yourself.”

Virginia Health Care Foundation (VHCF) is rolling out a new initiative aimed at increasing access to mental health services for Virginians who are uninsured or medically underserved as part of the HSN.

It’s called Beyond Blue. VHCF’s executive director Debbie Oswalt says it has a three-pronged approach.

First, treating depression in diabetic patients.

“A lot of times people don’t realize it, but depression is a co-morbidity of diabetes and it gets in the way of people getting themselves better,” said Oswalt.

Second, creating a trauma-informed approach to care with a special focus on resiliency training for interested clinics and community health centers.

“There’s a lot of science that has become available to help us understand that, when people suffer trauma and it isn’t addressed, it actually stays with them and creates physiological effects,” said Oswalt.

And third, increasing the number of psychiatric nurse practitioners in the state.

“I don’t think a lot of people understand that three-quarters of the state of Virginia is a federally-designated mental health professional shortage area,” said Oswalt.

Oswalt says right now there are only 213 licensed psychiatric nurse practitioners in the state.

“That’s barely more than one per locality,” she said.

Other than psychiatrists, they are the only behavioral health professionals licensed to prescribe medicine.

VHCF plans to promote and fund full scholarships for nurse practitioners that are interested in becoming a psychiatric nurse practitioner. In turn, the recipients would be required to work for two years in the healthcare safety net after graduating.

The Beyond Blue initiative will cost $1.5 million. Oswalt says they’ve already raised $1.1 million. It will begin this summer.

To learn more about the initiative or VHCF, click here.