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Should West Virginia Treat Mental Health & Substance Abuse In The Medical System?

April 18, 2011

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - West Virginia has the second-fastest-growing prison population in the country, largely because of substance abuse and untreated mental health problems. But, according to some doctors and social workers, the state could get a better handle on those problems by screening and treating people when they get primary care.

Mary Aldred-Crouch, a licensed counselor and a program director with the state Bureau for Behavioral Health, says the trend is for clinics to invest in putting mental health providers on staff, to catch those problems early.

"Jail and prison overcrowding comes from untreated mental health and substance abuse problems. Is it going to add costs to the front end? Yes. Will it save the system money in the long run? Yes."

Aldred-Crouch says that by screening for depression, anxiety and substance abuse, the therapists can catch the problems when they are easier to treat. She spoke about the issue during last week's annual conference of the West Virginia chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.

Adding behavioral health to the treatment at a patient's medical home takes an up-front investment, but Aldred-Crouch says that pays off over and over again in the long run.

"Why would we not routinely screen for that, like we screen for cholesterol problems, and diabetes and breast cancer? It's part of health care."

According to Dr. Dan Doyle with New River Health Associates in Fayette County, counseling can make pain treatment more effective and less likely to lead to permanent disability. Doyle says doctors have to consider more than just the patient's physical ailment.

"Are they receiving mental health care? Are they receiving physical therapy? Do they have a plan for what they're doing with their life? Or are they waiting for the next pill to make them better?"

Studies have repeatedly shown that a huge portion of the problems doctors see are caused by or made worse by substance abuse or mental health issues.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV