Q&A: Rep. Mary Whiteford discusses the importance of behavioral health initiatives

Representative Mary Whiteford is a Republican from West Michigan who serves as a member of the House Health Policy Committee. The representative spoke to State of Reform about the importance of behavioral health and how the Michigan Crisis and Access Line (MiCAL) can help Michiganders across the state.

Mansur Shaheen: What would you say is your biggest priority for the 2021 session?

Rep. Mary Whiteford: “I learned when I was knocking on doors and talking to police officers that a major issue in my county, the state and the nation was mental health. I found that there were so many gaps and a lack of person-centered care. So I decided I wanted to do something about that.

I also noticed that when somebody reaches out for help, if they don’t get help on that first call they may never get help. And so, we have to make sure that early access to the intervention is available.

I came up with the crisis and access line (MiCAL). It is in the process of going live next month in parts of the state. It allows anybody to find out where there’s a crisis or emergency room that has a bed nearby. A grandma can call because she’s worried about her grandson and try to get local services, a police officer can call during a check in, an emergency room nurse can call and find every available bed in hospitals and psychiatric wards in the area.

There are other bills I am trying to get signed into law as well. One will establish licensed freestanding crisis stabilization units, so that people don’t go to the emergency room anymore. They can walk through the door and get help.

Another one is pediatric residential treatment facilities. So what this does is it sets up residential treatment facilities around the state so children who don’t need to be attended to, but are not quite ready to go home, have a place to stay. So that’s almost signed into law as well.”

MS: Do you think behavioral health is often overlooked when we talk about health care?

MW: “Absolutely, as mental illness is a disorder of perception. You cannot put a stethoscope on somebody and see that they’re ready to take their own life. You cannot take an x-ray and know that they have schizophrenia. It is a very challenging thing to treat diagnose is to be a professional in that realm, so it is very easy to look the other way.”

MS: Do you think there is more the state can do to address the opioid crisis?

MW: “Honestly, MiCAL I believe is going to help people who are becoming addicted. If you have mental illness, anxiety, depression, you may suffer with alcohol, drugs, and then they end up with not only mental illness but they’re also addicted. So it’s a co-occurring mental health issue going on. So we’re able to get people the help they need from the beginning and I think that makes a big difference.

There’s a lot of anxiety and depression, with the COVID pandemic. A lot of people are scared to leave their homes, to breathe.

We’re implementing more and more substance use disorder programs that can help with integrated care, physical health and mental health all in one place. We funded a massive expansion of these behavioral health homes to help make sure that people are getting wraparound services for their addiction, so they’re in the right place at the right time and professionals will be able to help them out. We just have to just put our foot on the gas pedal and make sure that we’ve got this access for people.”

MS:The pandemic has created a growth in telehealth. How can telehealth help in the behavioral health realm?

MW: “I have been working for years to be able to have telemedicine in behavioral health. I was part of a bill package prior to the pandemic, and it was fast tracked and we got signed into law. I believe it was May or June, to allow telehealth among all professions. Right now, it is just making sure that professionals are reimbursed properly, even if they provide services virtually.

Telehealth can also help patients adjust to behavioral health treatment. You’re not going to be able to really have a conversation going into a psychiatrist’s office until you feel safe. Now, out of your 45-minute session, about 20 minutes is spent just feeling safe and getting used to that environment before you can start opening up about your issues. Psychiatry and psychiatric issues are disorders of perception. Somebody in their home is in a safe environment already. And then, on the computer or their phone they have a telehealth visit with their psychiatrists or psychologists or social workers. I think it is much more effective for that person. So, I think telehealth is incredibly impactful for our behavioral health.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.