Last week while attending the 25th Annual Rosalynn Carter Symposium on Mental Health Policy, I had the pleasure of sitting down and chatting for a few moments with Thomas Bornemann, Ed.D. who has served as the Director of The Carter Center Mental Health Program for the past seven years.
If you didn’t know, The Carter Center has been a leading force in helping to coordinate national mental health policy over the past two and a half decades. It does most of its work behind the scenes and is rarely noted for what it does best — bringing all stakeholders to the same table to talk and work on how they can advance policy and mental health agendas in the country. They do this through year-round work and collaborations with legislatures, advocates, organizations, non-profits, and others. And they hold an annual symposium that they describe like this:
In 1985, former First Lady Rosalynn Carter initiated the annual Rosalynn Carter Symposium on Mental Health Policy to bring together national leaders in mental health to focus and coordinate their efforts on an issue of common concern.
The symposia have represented a unique opportunity each year for this leadership to hear remarks from a variety of individuals with expertise on a selected topic; discuss diverse viewpoints in an open forum; identify areas of consensus and potential collaborations as well as points of divergence; and to recommend action steps for symposium participants to move an agenda forward.
Held each November, the symposia have examined such issues as mental illness and the elderly, child and adolescent illness, family coping, financing mental health services and research, treating mental illness in the primary care setting, and stigma and mental illness.
Of course, in the past decade, mental health (professionally, often referred to as “behavioral health”) and substance abuse in this country have undergone some significant changes. One of the more significant is the increasing communication among health professions — primary care physicians talking to mental health professionals, mental health professionals talking to substance abuse professionals, and so on.
“One of the most striking things I’ve seen happen has been the reduction in the silos between a lot of the disciplines we have to work with,” said Dr. Thomas Bornemann. “I have never seen the mental health and substance abuse worlds cooperating on the same agenda as they are doing now.”
Dr. Bornemann echoed that cooperation with primary care doctors has also improved substantially.
“We all go through primary care to get our health care,” Dr. Bornemann continued. “It doesn’t matter what diagnosis you receive, you will have to go through primary care to get there. Primary care is that doorway in, but it’s now a far more receptive doorway [for mental health concerns].”
He was also quick to note that he wasn’t just talking about primary care physicians, though, since a lot of specialties have increased their behavioral health focus and outreach as well.
| “Primary care is broader than a single physician… Pediatrics, for instance, is a key component of reaching out to children early in their lives. Pediatricians have the ability to start catching issues much earlier, perhaps even preventing them from turning into adult concerns. OBGYN doctors for women can help reach out to women, for things like postpartum depression.”|
I asked Dr. Bornemann about some of the achievements the program is most proud of in the past few years, and naturally the conversation turned to the national parity law passed last year which takes effect on January 1, 2010. This law makes it illegal for insurance companies to discriminate against mental health concerns, such as the common practices of limiting their treatment or denying coverage for pre-existing conditions.
(left) Carter Center Mental Health Program Director Thomas Bornemann Ed.D. and (right) former First Lady Rosalynn Carter share notes from the 25th anniversary Rosalynn Carter Symposium on Mental Health Policy. The 2009 symposium theme was “Health Care Reform: Challenges and Opportunities for Behavioral Health Care Reform.”
“I’m proud of the work we did behind the scenes on parity. But remember, we were just one small player among many. Mrs. Carter played a particularly strong role, particularly near the end, when she made endless phone calls and visits with legislatures to help ensure its passage.”
“Working with our colleagues in many different organizations, we all banded together and got it done. That was very rewarding to finally see happen after all these years.”
In addition to its behind-the-scenes work on national mental health parity, The Carter Center was also instrumental in helping to craft how to get the message out for the groundbreaking Surgeon General’s report on mental health, the first of its kind. What makes The Carter Center’s role in mental health policy unique?
“Our voice and our organizational abilities can help bring disparate groups to work together,” Dr. Bornemann noted.
“We work with universities, academics, advocates, government entities, pharmaceutical companies, health plans, but we’re not owned by any of them. We bring those groups together and serve in a catalytic function.”
“We don’t have a dog in the race. We’re uniquely positioned to help these groups come together, communicate, learn to work together.”
In two upcoming blog entries, I’ll be discussing Georgia’s struggle with its state mental health programs and facilities (which will be familiar to regular readers of World of Psychology), as well as the specific recommendations that came out of the 25th symposium.
Learn more about The Carter Center’s Mental Health Program.