A recent Capitol Hill briefing allowed the APA/SAMHSA Minority Fellowship Program, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary, to show off its good works.
An overview of the program was given by one of the current program fellows—Teo-Carlo Straun, M.D., an addiction psychiatry fellow at Yale University—during an April 16 briefing on improving mental health access and care.
The briefing was sponsored by three senators interested in mental health issues—Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.)—and by the Mental Health Liaison Group (MHLG). The MHLG is a coalition of more than 60 national organizations, including APA, that are involved in the mental health field.
The mission of the APA/SAMHSA Minority Fellowship Program, Straun said, is to enhance the capabilities of racial and ethnic minority psychiatry residents to provide culturally competent, evidence-based, recovery-oriented mental health and substance abuse treatment to minority individuals.
Once residents are selected as fellows, they are assigned mentors, receive special leadership training, and are assigned to one of APA’s councils. Their expenses are covered to attend both the APA annual meeting and the Institute on Psychiatric Services, during which mentoring breakfasts are held to help them learn to deliver presentations at workshops organized especially for them. The fellows are also provided with funds that they can use for a ground-rounds presentation or for a research project.
Straun has used some of his APA/SAMHSA Minority Fellowship Program funds to support the launch of an initiative to overcome health care disparities in the inner city, he reported.
The initiative is called the Barbershop Health Network. It was spearheaded by an organization in Worcester, Mass., called Mosaic. Upon learning about the initiative, Straun was immediately inspired and pledged resources to help get the project off the ground (Psychiatric News, May 3).
“Barbers have a long history, even going back to ancient Egypt, of being surgeons, doctors, and respected members of the community,” Straun noted. Even today, barbers are esteemed, trusted members of inner-city communities and “really build relationships with their clients.” Thus Straun and colleagues at Mosaic recruited barbers at five barbershops in Worcester to educate their clients about mental health issues and to screen them for mental health problems. If clients are thought to have such problems, the barbers alert the program, and Straun or another colleague follows up with the clients to ascertain the extent of their problems and help them get treatment.
The concept was so successful that Mosaic has expanded it to four more barbershops in Worcester. And building on the knowledge and expertise gained through his partnership with Mosaic, Straun said he is working on piloting another site in the New Haven, Conn., area.
An innovative Australian mental health initiative called Mental Health First Aid was also discussed at the briefing. It is a course to teach employers, business leaders, police, faith communities, educators, and the general public how to recognize warning signs of mental illness and how to help individuals obtain mental health care (Psychiatric News, March 7, 2008). The program is being offered in several countries, including the United States.
Mental Health First Aid is a good strategy to get people to intervene early in a mental illness, Arthur Evans Jr., Ph.D., commissioner of the Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services, commented. And Begich reported that he, Ayotte, and Blumenthal have introduced a bill in Congress to expand Mental Health First Aid training throughout this country.
A successful Alaskan mental health initiative also received attention at the briefing. It was discussed by Mark Walker, executive director of Alaska Island Community Services in Wrangell, Alaska.
Thanks to a four-year grant from SAMHSA, he and his colleagues were able to launch the program, he said. The aim of the program is to better integrate primary and behavioral health services for chronically mentally ill patients and to engage them in wellness activities to reduce their risk factors for chronic medical illnesses.
Their approach has been to increase patients’ access to regular medical care to twice annually and to track weight, blood pressure, blood glucose, lipids, and body mass index (BMI). Patients also get nutritional counseling and, to help make it easier for them to engage in physical activities, Walker and his staff arranged with local parks and recreation departments to give patients access to exercise programs.
“In just three years, we’ve seen significant improvements in many of the patients’ health indicators that we’re tracking,” said Walker. “A high percentage of the participants in this program came to us with a BMI that indicated that they were obese. And over the last three years, we’ve seen a 30 percent improvement in BMI indicators. We’ve had a 66 percent improvement in blood glucose levels and small improvements in patients’ lipid panels.”
After seeing such clear improvements, Walker and his team have decided to expand the program to other individuals with mental health or substance abuse issues, not just people with chronic mental illness. “We want to make sure that we can continue this program beyond the term of the grant,” Walker explained. “Integrating the model into the treatment plan of other behavioral health clients is one way to achieve this end.” ■