Q&A: Dr. Aliya Jones on the pandemic and its impact on behavioral health in Maryland

Dr. Aliya Jones is the deputy secretary of behavioral health at the Maryland Department of Health. She is a psychiatrist and was most recently the chief of psychiatry and chair of behavioral health at Bon Secours Hospital in Baltimore. Dr. Jones has served on the Maryland Hospital Association’s Behavioral Health Task Force and Baltimore’s Heroin and Prevention Task Force. 

In this Q&A, Dr. Jones talks about the pandemic, the impacts it has had on those dealing with behavioral health issues, and lessons the state has learned as it starts to open back up.


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Matt Beuschlein: Now that Maryland is opening back up, what lessons have we learned from the COVID-19 pandemic?

Dr. Aliya Jones: “I’m really happy to see how well we’re doing in Maryland with regard to vaccinations and the freedom that it provides for individuals to be able to move around in a safe way. One of the things we learned during the pandemic was how impactful COVID was on the health of all of our citizens, not just those who had a behavioral health condition prior to COVID. I think we have to be mindful and careful now. I don’t want people to get lackadaisical or feel like they can pivot with regard to how people are doing because it would be premature.”

MB: Are the vaccination rates for those in the behavioral health system near the same levels as the state vaccination rates? 

AJ: “The vaccination rate for people 12 and up, in the behavioral health system, was 31% at the end of June. [It was] 34% for those 18 and above. That number has gone up considerably since May, when our vaccination rate was only 8%. We have made significant improvements over the past couple of months and we’re continuing to mobilize resources at the state and local level to keep improving vaccination rates. 

As a point of reference, the national vaccination rate for the flu vaccine, for those using the behavioral health system nationally, is about 25%. So we’re definitely doing better than the average flu shot. However, we recognize that there is a long way to go and we really want to try to drive as hard as we can to get that number as close to the same vaccination rate as the general public.”

MB: Going from an 8% vaccination rate to 31% is a pretty significant jump in a short amount of time. What do you attribute that success to? 

AJ: “I have to give the credit to the providers in our community. The Behavioral Health Administration has been communicating to providers since the beginning of the year about the importance of being able to give vaccines to their patient populations. We have a large number of providers who have signed up in the ImmuNet system, and there’s room for more. We’re encouraging our providers to do that and they are responding to that request. 

We are working hard to get information down to the provider levels so that our providers will know within their practices who is or is not vaccinated, so they can focus on those individuals to get vaccinated, at least by ensuring that they have accurate information. At the Behavioral Health Administration, we have been doing webinars about vaccine hesitancy and messaging for those who have had behavioral health conditions for the past several months. We have about three or four webinars that we’ve done on that issue. And we will be doing some more over the next coming months. I’m really keeping our focus on this issue.” 

MB: Are there certain segments of the population that have been impacted by the pandemic more than others? 

AJ: “We’re seeing the same challenges that I think everyone is seeing. We’re all taken aback by the increases in overdoses and the impact of the pandemic on those with substance use disorders. I think that it comes as a surprise that our young people and young adults are significantly more impacted by the behavioral health fallout than older populations. When COVID first landed on the scene, it was seen as a disease that affected and more greatly impacted older adults. And so I think we all expected that the mental health consequences were going to be in the older population. But our young people have had the greatest fallout from a behavioral health perspective, which is very concerning. So there’s a lot more that has to be done for our youth and our young adults to ensure that they are mentally healthy and that we’re supporting their resilience and supporting their recovery as much as we possibly can. So those populations are where we’re seeing significant challenges.”

MB: Has Maryland been experiencing any behavioral health workforce shortages? If so, what is being done to address those shortages?

AJ: “Workforce issues for behavioral health are long-standing. They predate the COVID pandemic and COVID has made workforce challenges worse for the behavioral health industry. So yes, we are definitely seeing a shortage.

We’re just now starting to get our heads around this issue. We have had plans and we already have workforce initiatives in place, but most of the workforce messages that we have are to grow the workforce, not for tomorrow, but for the near future. We’re working with schools to provide scholarships for those who are studying or looking to gain more information about behavioral health and hope that these students will go on to work in behavioral health settings. We’re growing our peer workforce and providing funding for our peers to become specialized peer recovery specialists. I would just say that in general, and [in] medicine, and certainly in behavioral health, there’s more that needs to be done. And I think we’re all just trying to figure that out.”

MB: Can you provide an update on the MD Mind Health program?

AJ: “So the platform went live last summer. That resource continues to be available to those who want to continue to stay connected, or who want reminders about staying connected to family and loved ones attending to their own self-care during the pandemic. We have several hundred individuals who’ve taken advantage of it. And we’re hoping that more people will continue to use it as a resource. I would say that our biggest focus is on increasing the vaccination rate for people who are using the public behavioral health system. 

It’s no surprise, and it’s no different than any other state across the country, people who have behavioral health needs tend to have their general medical health means not addressed at the same rate as the general population. The same thing is true when it comes to vaccinations, or preventive treatments. And so when we look at Maryland, our vaccination rate for those who have had one dose. is really strong at 76% who are over the age of 18. When we look at the public behavioral health system, I look more at those who have been completely vaccinated, our rate is significantly lower than that. And so that is something that we have been focusing on over the past couple of months, is really increasing the vaccination rate for those who are some of the most vulnerable in our society.”

This interview was edited for clarity and length