The U.S. has experienced several distressing trends over the last decade, including a dramatic rise in suicides and an increase in opioid use, overdose and related deaths. In response, politicians, scientists and community groups call for more research to better understand the “root of these problems” and identify solutions to address them. We are researchers who rely on this funding and agree that understanding a problem is a necessary first step toward developing responses. For many of these issues, however, a strong research base already exists that has simply not been translated into policy or practice. In short, health system leaders, payers and policymakers know what to do, but are not doing it—or at least not enough of it.
Take suicide, for example. Suicide rates have increased by about 30% since the turn of the century. Possibly contributing to this horrifying statistic, the percentage of individuals reporting an unmet need for mental health services has increased every year for the past decade. Billions of research dollars have been spent developing effective suicide prevention interventions and identifying ways to improve mental health screening, referral and treatment. However, we know that the most significant barriers to improving mental health nationwide are the lack of well-trained clinicians, insufficient reimbursement and poor insurance coverage for mental healthcare. Although we have mental health interventions that work, the nation lacks the workforce or infrastructure to deliver them.
New research efforts are certainly important, but we already have evidence-based, systems-level solutions that could be implemented right now to improve Americans’ mental health and many of the conditions that lead to suicide. Health system leaders can lead this charge on several fronts.
First, they can invest in hiring, training and retaining more mental health clinicians at their organizations. Specific strategies include offering sufficient compensation, reducing expectations for increased productivity, working to reduce administrative burdens and providing opportunities for continued professional development.