By John Smith
Millions of Americans face the day-to-day reality of living with a mental illness. Mental illness affects everyone—our communities, our families and ourselves. Access to help, treatment and services for those in need can be a challenge, and the impact of systems and treatment failures—homelessness, cycles of hospitalization, jail, failed relationships—affect many.
And yet, amid the failures are stories of success. In many communities, we see innovative solutions emerging that offer hope while providing effective approaches that truly improve lives.
Many people with mental illness do not have access to integrated primary health care. Despite the fact that people with mental illness often have other health challenges, including heart disease and diabetes, too often health care providers are not equipped to address all of their health care needs. And, if left untreated, this may result in additional struggles for the individuals, too often resulting in the use of other more expensive, downstream services including emergency departments and crisis services.
In Massachusetts, one local approach to solving this challenge stands as a pillar, as a promising practice. Through the creative use of technology, community health care provider Vinfen, along with Dartmouth Medical School and other community health providers, embarked on an effort to study the use of a small personal technology device, The Health Buddy, to help individuals manage their physical and mental health needs on a daily basis.
"Although it does not fix everything for me, I am walking more than I used to, I am more active and it has helped me get through my day better."
“The Health Buddy helps me and my case manager stay connected,” said John, a gentleman with a mental illness who has been using the personal technology device to help him manage his mental and physical health care. “It helps monitor health and feeling and helps me manage my medications. It also helps me manage how to eat and when to eat to be healthier.”
A small hand-held device with four buttons and a display screen, the Health Buddy, along with a related systems study, aims to teach individuals with serious mental illness, like John, how to help manage their chronic medical conditions and access care sooner while avoiding more severe complications.
In John’s case, the technology helps him keep track of his health experiences and also alerts his treatment team. If he records information that alerts a concern, they are notified sooner and can reach out to check in to address any problems before they may escalate. If John needs something special, he can also alert his case management team ahead of time so they can talk about it, a relief to John who previously may have had to wait for an appointment to register an issue.
“I think this technology is a good idea,” John shared. “I get to communicate every day, not just when I have an appointment. It serves as a reminder about my diabetes and mental health condition by asking me ‘How do you feel today?’ and then also gives me new information that is helpful for me in understanding how to be healthier.”
In addition to helping John better manage his various health conditions, it has helped him stay connected, personally, and has helped him be more independent. He visits to the emergency department have rapidly decreased as he has learned to become his own health care advocate, and his relationships with his wife and sister have improved.
“I think this is a good idea” John said. “Although it does not fix everything for me, I am walking more than I used to, I am more active and it has helped me get through my day better.” A promising practice indeed.
Together with the National Council for Behavioral Health (National Council) and Otsuka America Pharmaceutical, Inc. and Lundbeck, NAMI affirms the need for localized, innovative, effective and sustainable approaches to address serious mental illness. Through Connect 4 Mental Health® (C4MH),a nationwide initiative, we have joined together to call for communities to prioritize serious mental illness and encourage promising practices that help people, like John, live healthier, fuller lives.
Learn more about the C4MH initiative and the Community Innovation Awards program which, through four $10,000 awards, will strive to recognize additional organizations across the country that are exhibiting innovative approaches to serious mental illness in their communities.
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