Dr. Anthony Tersigni: America, we need to focus on mental and behavioral health in the aftermath of the Las Vegas tragedy

Fifty-nine lives. 

In Las Vegas, 59 lives were lost, more than 500 people are still healing and a nation seeks answers after another senseless tragedy. We continue to see these tragedies at an alarming rate because we all too often fall short of addressing the root cause.

While much national discussion focuses on the costs and benefits of additional gun regulation, we also need to have an honest conversation about how to treat the underlying disease by improving access to mental and behavioral healthcare.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention ranks suicide as the 10th leading cause of death in this country. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that approximately 1 in 5 U.S. adults will be affected by a mental illness this year alone. If I told you one-fifth of all American adults had some form of bone disease, there would be a national outcry to dramatically ramp up all research and treatment for it. Don't mental and behavioral disorders deserve the same attention and resources as any other pervasive disease?

Of 43.8 million people affected by mental illness this year, 60 percent will not receive mental health services. Worse, nearly 40 percent of adults with a serious mental illness go without the help they so desperately need, and yet many in our nation continue to stigmatize those with mental and behavioral illness.

Research suggests an inherent link between alcohol abuse and gun violence; 48 percent of homicide offenders are reportedly under the influence of alcohol at the time of the offense. Furthermore, risk of homicide, suicide and violent death significantly increases with chronic substance abuse. Addiction to alcohol, drugs and gambling is a national tragedy that often exacerbates the struggle of those suffering from mental illness.

At Ascension, our mission calls us to provide compassionate, personalized care for body, mind and spirit — especially for people living in poverty and those most vulnerable. Across our 2,500 sites of care, we are sharing best practices and learning from one another to better integrate behavioral healthcare into more primary care settings. In fact, many of our physicians have started to add social workers and health psychologists, who focus on patients' mental and behavioral health needs, to their practices.

We have begun to expand our telehealth services to include telebehavioral health, serving more individuals where and when they are in need. It's an innovative beginning with endless possibilities. To ensure behavioral healthcare is integrated with our community health work, we are addressing social determinants of health to understand the conditions that have given rise to an increase of mental and behavioral health disorders.

As the U.S. struggles with a mental and behavioral health crisis, it demands a national discussion that is transparent and honest. It's only when Americans begin to heal from the inside out that we can, together, more effectively respond to tragedies such as those in Las Vegas, Sandy Hook and Virginia Tech — along with the 121 suicides occurring each day.

We need to recognize and constantly remind ourselves that our collective health —physical and mental — is one of our nation's greatest resources. It should also be one of our greatest priorities.

America, we are sick. Mental health systems are failing and we need a better, more effective treatment program. That is why Ascension advocates for a heightened focus on mental and behavioral health. I urge other healthcare organizations to join us.

Anthony R. Tersigni, EdD, FACHE

President and CEO of St. Louis-based Ascension, the nation's largest Catholic and nonprofit health system

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