Mental health services, providers limited in Beaufort County

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One in five people will experience a mental health issue within their lifetime. As the population of Beaufort County increases, so will those with mental health issues.

Beaufort County is experiencing a shortage of mental health providers. Most of these professionals are in private practice and do not accept insurance at this time. Wait times for both private and public sectors, outside of crisis situations, can be months.

What other medical field locally has such an extensive a waiting period for debilitating and possibly life threatening conditions?

Of the three local hospitals easily accessible to Beaufort County residents - Hilton Head Regional, Beaufort Memorial and Coastal Carolina, only one has an inpatient unit for mental health patients for the general population.

Beaufort Memorial's inpatient mental health unit has 14 beds for general adult mental health care. Chief Medical Officer Dr. Kurt Gambla said, "Beaufort Memorial's acute inpatient mental health unit offers an intensive therapeutic environment providing 24-hour nursing, medical and psychiatric care for adult patients who require a structured, safe space for crisis resolution and stabilization."

Gambla also acknowledged the shortage of providers. "The services our team provides have become increasingly important amid the chronic shortage of mental health providers in general, and the emotional, financial and social stressors caused by the pandemic," he said.

Recently Hilton Head Regional created a jump-start program in "The Cove," as part of its Senior Behavioral Health Unit. According to the website, this program provides "Individualized short-term care ... for older adults experiencing psychiatric symptoms... " At this time the program serves the 65 years and older population, but other patients will be considered on a case by case basis.

Still, the demand for treatments at a higher level of care outweigh available resources. Often treatment needs are sought out of the area, at such facilities as MUSC in Charleston.

Possibly one of the greatest gaps in service to residents with mental health issues is the absence of an Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP). IOP is readily available across the country, such as MUSC in Charleston, and serves as a vital bridge between inpatient hospitalization level of care and individual outpatient therapy.

IOP is a step-down program to teach transitional coping skills for living as a patient adjusts from life within a facility to life back within the general population. This service is usually provided with both full-day and half-day options.

Without such a bridge, the drastic change from hospitalization to outpatient care can be very jarring to an individual's recovery and creates a high likelihood of relapse. If it comes down to a matter of finances, a well-rounded treatment program that builds the foundation for longevity of well-being is far more cost effective than short spurts of various treatments that are almost always rapidly cyclical in nature.

Why are so many people with mental health issues continually being hospitalized one time after another after another? Because they are not getting the proper follow-up afterwards. Most insurances only cover mental health inpatient hospitalization for an average of seven days.

While seven days might prove effective to mitigate a crisis situation, it will in no way begin to treat the underlying condition that brought the patient to the hospital in the first place. In contrast, IOP programs tend to last an average of six weeks.

Laura Kaponer is a mental health advocate and social media blogger, as well as a volunteer with the local chapter of NAMI. #LauraKaponeris1in5 (as 1 in 5 Americans have a mental illness).

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