Arkansas has a disproportionate number of residents suffering from behavioral medical issues, and Friday (July 16) Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield’s health improvement arm, The Blue & You Foundation for a Healthier Arkansas, provided its largest set of grants ever.
Blue & You will spend $5.2 million on behavioral health programs across the state, Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield President and CEO Curtis Barnett said during a ceremony at Little Rock’s Heifer International. The aim of the grants is to expand the behavioral workforce, remove barriers to care, and help build lifelong habits that will positively impact mental health, he added.
“Every life deserves hope,” Barnett said.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who attended the announcement, said anxiety- and depression-related disorders have always been a problem in the Natural State, but they were accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. It has gone from a problem to an unprecedented situation, he added.
“We’ve faced mental health challenges that haven’t been faced in a very long time,” the governor said.
Across the United States, behavioral health conditions have been on the rise since 2014 and have risen sharply since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The percentage of Arkansas adults experiencing symptoms of anxiety and/or depressive disorder are higher than the national average (40.4% in Arkansas vs. 37.7% in the United States), according to Blue & You.
Arkansas is a medically underserved state, lacking access to psychiatric care and mental health services, especially in the largely rural areas of the state, The COVID-19 pandemic has added behavioral, physical, and financial stressors that may lead to more family conflict, violence, substance abuse, mental health concerns and maltreatment in the home. Hutchinson noted that overdose deaths rose by 30% during the pandemic.
Part of the $5.2 million grant will be used to fund two UAMS programs.
About $1.2 million will be dedicated to the Trauma Resource Initiative for Schools. UAMS Chancellor Dr. Cam Patterson said that students in the state are disproportionately impacted by mental health issues due to the state being largely rural and economically disadvantaged. The program allows UAMS experts to team with educators to identify ways to aid student behavioral health.
The second grant, $700,000, will be used to fund the AR Connect Program. The program, started in April 2020, provides telemedicine care for those suffering mental health issues and substance abuse problems, Patterson said.
A grant for $1.5 million will go to the Arkansas Children’s Hospital’s Healthysteps program. ACH President and CEO Marcy Doderer said the program will target children from ages 0-3. It will allow specialists to assist in local clinics. These specialists will help children improve their physical, mental and social health, she added.
Three grants will be gifted to Arkansas State University, the University of Arkansas, and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock to aid in the development of clinical social worker training programs. Each school will receive $500,000 and the money will be allocated in the form of stipends to students working in primary care settings.
Another $105,000 will be distributed to high school clubs and programs that deal with elements of behavioral health.