OP-ED

Helping tens of thousands, and many more

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Rhode Island is home to more than two dozen state departments and agencies, most of them engaged in work that resonates in some way with the general public. Just think Department of Health, or Department of Transportation, or Department of Environmental Management. Their work resonates because it impacts many people.

Less clear, to many, is the role played by the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals.  Here we have the second-largest state agency based on its employee count, and what it’s best known for may well be an erroneous reading of its “BHDDH” acronym, routinely pronounced “Buddha.”

No, BHDDH has nothing to do with the founder of a religion. But its work does touch on the lives of many.

There are roughly 30,000 people in Rhode Island with mental health issues, 17,000 with substance use disorders, and 4,000 with developmental disabilities. There is some overlap among these groups, but the population our department is concerned with still totals more than 50,000. 

In most cases, these are people who cannot manage or overcome their challenges without help. Nor can they do so with help from family members and loved ones alone. This is why we have a Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals.

People with acute and long-term medical conditions or psychiatric disorders receive care at the Eleanor Slater Hospital, a state-run facility with campuses in Cranston and Burrillville. At any given time the hospital typically has about 220 patients. Its goal is to employ multi-disciplinary treatment plans that recognize each patient’s individuality and right to dignified care. We focus on recovery and quality of life, and we urge family members to be involved and provide encouragement.

The department also oversees services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. We believe everyone should be encouraged to live to the fullest extent possible, with opportunities to grow, work and be contributing members of society. To this end, BHDDH oversees person-centered services for people living in family, residential and independent settings. Within these settings, the help that people receive can touch on everything from daily living activities to skills development to finding employment to becoming involved in the community.

Finally, the department coordinates care for people who suffer from mental health issues and substance use disorders. As the State Mental Health Authority, we work each day to provide access to the best-possible mental health and well-being. We focus on prevention, intervention, treatment and recovery, and with other state and nonprofit agencies, we work to reduce the negative image often associated with these conditions. 

This is especially relevant during May, which is designated Mental Health Awareness Month. The goal of this annual campaign is to bring attention to the importance of mental health and reduce the negative image often associated with mental health issues. Mental illnesses, like illnesses that affect our bodies, are just that – conditions that can be treated. The last thing we want is for negative perceptions to discourage people from seeking help.

None of this work is easy. That is why we, with the support of Governor Gina Raimondo and others, opened a one-stop behavioral health triage/crisis center last year with a 24-hour hotline (414-LINK). Whether someone is struggling with a substance use disorder or a mental health condition, BH Link provides access to nurses, counselors, psychiatrists, peer specialists, case managers and even transportation to pick people up, if needed. We want to make sure that people are stabilized and linked to the right care and services.

Of course, the fact that families and friends are also impacted when people face these challenges means that our work touches on many lives, beyond the people who are receiving some form of care. That is why it is important for people to know what we do, and how we can help.

Rebecca Boss is the director of the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals.

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