Increasing access to mental health support
Licensed clinical social workers help integrate behavioral health and primary care.
Coping with stressful life events, physical ailments, isolation from loved ones and the COVID-19 pandemic can take a toll on one’s mental health. Not knowing where to seek help, a reluctance to ask for assistance and the stigma associated with mental health challenges may prevent some individuals from getting the support they need. Help is available and scheduling a primary care appointment is a good place to start.
Licensed clinical social workers, or LCSWs, are seeing patients in a primary care setting at UF Health family medicine practices and through UF Health Virtual Visit. They assess, diagnose and treat behavioral health conditions and coordinate care services. Patients receive psychotherapy for anxiety, depression, grief and loss, PTS and other behavioral health conditions.
Social workers have been on staff at several UF Health family medicine practices since 2015. There are currently eight licensed clinical social workers with various work experiences and specialties seeing patients at 20 practices. Not all locations have one on staff, but patients may visit any of the practices with social workers or they can be offered a virtual visit. The goal is for all family medicine practices to have one full-time licensed clinical social worker in the near future. Kimberly Matthews, director of health care administration for the UF College of Medicine – Jacksonville department of community health and family medicine, is building the model that provides patients immediate access to behavioral health care alongside physical care.
“I researched what the model should look like and how to successfully embed LCSWs within our primary care practices,” Matthews said. “Our model is being built in collaboration with our LCSWs, who share their expertise. There is so much opportunity to help expand the care our patients receive.”
There are a few ways patients may be referred, including through self-referrals and by primary care providers. Family medicine social workers also partner with UF Health emergency room case managers to ensure discharged patients get the services they need. They also connect with UF Health Psychiatry – Jacksonville, which may refer less severe patient cases.
Chelsea Foote, LSCW, who sees patients with anxiety, mood disorders or cancer, practices at four UF Health family medicine practices in Jacksonville. Foote emphasizes that although the stigma around mental health lessened since COVID-19 arrived, it is still important for patients to feel comfortable seeking treatment.
“People want access to mental health resources, and they already feel safe and comfortable at their primary care office,” Foote said.
When patients attend a primary care appointment, they will complete a screening questionnaire to assess for anxiety and depression symptoms. If they score high, it may serve as an alert to the physician for further evaluation. The physician may recommend mental health care, such as therapy, and introduce the patient to the social worker.
“Our role is to help and support, never to judge. Patients often feel comfortable and safe knowing that it’s a judgment-free zone. We can be an objective party to help find solutions to issues taking place in someone’s life,” Foote said. “We also connect patients to community resources and help break down barriers to meet their needs.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics data brief published in 2018, from 2012 to 2014, on average an estimated 30 million mental health-related physician office visits were made by adults 18 and older.
In addition to office appointments, patients may be seen through a virtual visit, receiving care from the comfort of their home. No matter the setting, social workers are improving patient access for mental health support.
“We’ve received excellent feedback from physicians and staff,” Matthews said. “There is continuity of care between the social workers and primary care providers, and we’re collaborating with other departments in new ways.”
Visit UFJaxPrimaryCare.org to learn more about the availability of services.