Behavioral Health | Community | Health News

By ECU News Services

Children and adolescents with mental health care needs will benefit from a $3.2 million partnership between East Carolina University and the United Health Foundation.

The grant will expand the North Carolina Statewide Telepsychiatry Program (NC-STeP) within the ECU Center for Telepsychiatry and e-Behavioral Health. The investment is part of the United Health Foundation’s ongoing commitment to working with ECU to address mental health challenges in North Carolina — this time with youth.

In joining leaders to announce the three-year partnership, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper highlighted the critical needs surrounding children’s mental health in the state.

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper sits on a panel with other officials and Dr. Sy Saeed.
Photos Courtesy of ECU News Services

“Not only do we need to pay attention to our health, but our mental health as well and we’re recognizing that more than ever,” Cooper said. “That’s why I am so excited that the United Health Foundation, Dr. Sy Saeed and ECU have come together to try to get mental health treatment to young people in a more efficient and better way.”

Cooper said the NC-STeP partnership between ECU and the United Health Foundation helps advance toward his mission for the state for people to be able to live healthier lives with opportunities of purpose and abundance. Cooper said residents of rural North Carolina know how hard it is to get access to health care. Telemedicine will help bring experts to people wherever they are throughout North Carolina.

“I’m excited about this project. There are going to be people’s lives improved and people’s lives saved because of it,” Cooper said.

Through this expanded program, NC-STeP will provide access to mental health services for children in their established pediatric or primary care setting, removing the stigma sometimes associated with mental health care, said Saeed, director of the ECU Center for Telepsychiatry and founding executive director of NC-STeP. Through telemedicine, the program will offer expert consultation support for clinicians.

“In North Carolina, children experience significant challenges accessing the care needed to address their mental health. More than 70% of children in North Carolina with a mental health disorder do not receive treatment, and 92 out of 100 counties in the state are designated as mental health professional shortage areas,” Saeed said. “A growing body of literature suggests that the use of telepsychiatry to provide mental health care has the potential to mitigate the workforce shortage that directly affects access to care, especially in remote and underserved areas.”

NC-STeP was established in 2013 and has completed more than 56,000 psychiatry assessments in hospital emergency departments and has served more than 14,000 patients in its 23-community primary care settings. The expansion will provide mental health care services to underserved children and adolescents in six community-based pediatric and primary care clinics in rural and underserved parts of the state.

U.S. Reps. Greg Murphy and Don Davis, who helped guide NC-SteP in the General Assembly, have continued to support the initiative in Congress.

“It’s the people with boots on the ground, the people who are actually taking care of patients who deserve most of the praise,” Murphy said. “Sy has been a lifesaver for many individuals.”

Murphy thanked United Health Foundation for funding the initiative that will help address the unique challenges of patients in rural areas.

Dr. Sy Saeed speaks during an event.

Davis emphasized the focus on children’s mental health as an important step in the effort to “provide every child a fighting chance to realize the American dream in eastern North Carolina. Dr. Sy has been a fearless voice in this effort,” Davis said.

“We’re honored and excited to partner with East Carolina University to address key health challenges our young people are facing,” said Anita Bachmann, CEO, UnitedHealthcare Community Plan of North Carolina, part of UnitedHealth Group. “By working together and creating an interconnected system of clinical and social services, we can continue to produce better health outcomes for North Carolinians.”

The United Health Foundation and ECU also partnered in 2020 through a $1.25 million grant to expand telepsychiatry services to address the mental health needs of expectant and new mothers. Through the Maternal Outreach Using Telehealth for Rural Sites (MOTHeRs) project, ECU developed and deployed a new obstetric care model for high-risk patients and addressed food insecurity among pregnant women.

North Carolina Health and Human Services Secretary Kody Kinsley touted the importance of access to health care — particularly mental health care services — in rural North Carolina.

“There is no health without mental health,” Kinsley said. “In particular, I think we know that mental health needs for children are more acute than ever.”

Kinsley said the investment announced today is a “win-win-win.” The project is being built on a program that has led statewide in expanded access to care.

“Truly it has been ECU driving access to telepsychiatry far before it was a fashionable thing,” Kinsley said.

Innovation is at the center of ECU’s initiatives fostering regional transformation in health care. ECU Chancellor Philip Rogers said the partnership with the university and the United Health Foundation allows many disciplines across campus to address the disparities in health care.

Rogers said the initiative would not be possible without the steadfast dedication and hard work of leaders at ECU, beginning with Saeed, who leads the team responsible for the operational aspects of the program.

“This transformative grant builds on our leadership in leveraging technology to provide care in the region and across the state,” Rogers said. “Our partnership with the United Health Foundation runs quite deep. This partnership has already made a significant impact as we prepare students to address the critical shortage of mental health professionals in our state.”

“Lucky” Xue, Robert D. Teer Distinguished Professor, Department of Management Information Systems, and students in the ECU College of Business are responsible for two components of the project — a virtual reality video game (AI) and a knowledge management system (KM). Xue said the project would have a profound impact on her research, teaching and community engagement.

“The objective of the AI-KM component is to strengthen the collaboration among mental health care professionals, family members and community partners across eastern North Carolina, and to optimize the utilization of existing mental health knowledge while uncovering innovative practices,” Xue said.

“The students from the Department of Management Information Systems in the College of Business will be given the unique opportunity to participate in the system development process. This will serve as a practical application of the knowledge they have gained through their coursework and an opportunity to make a positive impact on society. It’s an excellent chance for them to hone their skills and contribute to a meaningful cause.”

Regional disparities

In North Carolina, children experience significant challenges accessing the care needed to address their mental health. This partnership will help connect youth with mental health services in areas with provider shortages, said Dave Tayloe Jr. at Goldsboro Pediatrics.

“We have a significant shortage of mental health professionals, and often these key members of our health care workforce are not paid enough to cover their expenses when they provide mental health services for at-risk children. Most communities do not have even one child psychiatrist to help primary care providers care for the children who have the most serious mental health problems,” Tayloe said. “We have seen great benefit from providing mental health educational courses for primary care health professionals, having mental health professionals who work in the schools, the primary care practice, and the community, and having access to telepsychiatry services for the children most at risk for adverse mental health outcomes.”

The new grant program will take about six months to prepare. Saeed said that through NC-STeP, ECU is serving others as the university’s mission calls it to do.

“Mental health — including psychological, emotional and social well-being — is a vital part of our overall health. This is especially true for children when we consider that for many adults with mental disorders, symptoms were present, but often not recognized or addressed, in childhood or adolescence,” he said. “The good news is that we live in times when the care for mental disorders has never been more effective.”

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