In the substance use and mental health world, researchers know that early detection and treatment can greatly improve outcomes. In New Mexico these conditions often go untreated because of stigma and lack of access due to the limited behavioral health workforce.
Deborah Altschul, PhD, aims to address these challenges head-on with her New Mexico Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment (NM-SBIRT) program.
“Most people already go to primary and urgent care for other health issues,” says Altschul, chief of community behavioral health in the UNM Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. “Our goal is to infuse behavioral health into these settings. That way, treatment is easily accessible in nonthreatening settings.”
Each of the program’s sites houses a behavioral health provider along with a certified peer support worker. Every patient undergoes a universal screen that takes only minutes to complete.
If the screen is positive for substance abuse, depression, anxiety or trauma, patients are immediately introduced to the behavioral health team for further assessment and treatment. “This increases access to convenient, evidence-based treatment,” Altschul says.
Altschul and her team collect data on every person who is screened. They follow 20 percent of the patients who screen positive every six months for two years to evaluate whether this approach effectively integrates behavioral health into primary care settings.
“By putting screening and treatment where people already are comfortable seeking help, we hope to catch substance abuse and mental health issues before they become big problems,” Altschul says.
“Additionally, given our state’s limited behavioral health workforce and health disparities, this research has major implications for public health in New Mexico.”