Making a social impact on behavioral health

By Paul Hollie
Thursday, October 19, 2017
Premera Employees at Marra Farm

Across the United States, people suffering behavioral health issues such as depression, anxiety and mood disorders are the number one condition standing between people and optimal health, according to the Blue Cross Blue Shield Health Index. 

Yet communities around the country find behavioral health problems difficult and daunting, and needs in this important health category often go unmet. At Premera, we are doing more to help organizations in Washington state and Alaska meet these challenges.

Behavioral health tends to get less attention than physical health, but that's not because it has a smaller impact on our individual health. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that nearly one in five adults in the U.S. has some sort of mental health condition, not including substance abuse, and the impact ranges from no or mild impairment to severely disabling.  And the U.S. Health and Human Services Department reports that depression is the third most common reason to visit any medical facility, after hypertension and diabetes.

Yet far too often, behavioral health needs are undiagnosed and, therefore, untreated. For example, primary care doctors identify less than one-third of patients suffering from depression. The problem is worse in historically underserved communities, including people of color and low-income populations, where community health data consistently shows treatment disparities among these groups. This disparity leads to worse health outcomes and increased costs.

Premera has recently taken a leap forward to meeting these health challenges as we solidify our commitment to social responsibility and effective philanthropy, looking strategically for a direct impact on neighborhoods and communities throughout Washington state and Alaska.

As part of this, we have focused our community giving program on behavioral health issues, with a particular emphasis on funding programs that help those underserved communities. We expect to donate $2 million in 2017 through our Social Impact Grants program, an effort that gives financial support to evidence based-programs and pilot projects with the potential for significant impact.

Working with and through community organizations will make a bigger impact. These are tough problems, with no simple solutions, so organizations with shared goals need to work together. We'll also do more than donate money. For example, Premera employees will be engaged through our company-wide Social Impact Day and other team projects.

We believe that this work can help make a small dent in ending the stigma associated with behavioral and metal health issues -- only 25 percent of adults with mental health symptoms believe people are sympathetic and caring to those with mental illness, according to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey. The stigma keeps people from getting the treatment they need.

Premera is taking on this task because we believe you are only fully healthy when physical and behavioral health are integrated. Research shows that medical doctors and other healthcare providers contribute to only 20 percent of a person's overall wellness, leaving a large gap for addressing behavioral health.

We are grateful for the enthusiasm we've received from stakeholders and partners since we first started discussing our new program. We will continue to be dedicated to working with them to foster healing for individuals, families and communities across the areas we serve.

Paul Hollie leads Premera's Social Impact Program.

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