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Don Levinson

Don Levinson is chairman of the Regional Mental Health Center's board of directors.

One of the recent trends in health care is the integration of physical and mental health services into one efficient model. Many people who suffer from physical conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol also might suffer from a mental illness like depression.

Often that mental illness is left untreated, leading to further physical health issues down the line. The end result is scary: statistics show that people with mental illnesses die up to 25 years earlier than people without mental illness because of preventable health conditions.

Mental health conditions tend to get overlooked. Most people who have mental illnesses are not treated for that illness, and of those who are, more than half receive mental health care from a primary care provider rather than from a mental health practitioner. Untreated mental health issues lead to poor physical health. Isolating mental health in a treatment vacuum and ignoring related physical health conditions makes for a flawed and inefficient system.

That's an unsettling problem, but fortunately, there's help. Integrated care systems, such as Regional Mental Health Center's primary care initiative, bring primary care physicians into mental health settings and vice versa in order to ensure all care is coordinated without crossed wires. The idea is to treat each one of your conditions with an awareness of all of your other conditions so you can receive holistic treatment and no condition gets overlooked.

In early 2011, Regional Mental Health Center was one of three Indiana recipients of a four-year grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to fund a new Primary Care Initiative. This nationally recognized program brings primary care services into the Stark Center in East Chicago and the Strawhun Center in Merrillville, and is the only program of its kind in Lake County.

Clients who participate in the primary care initiative receive checkups and screenings for diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. They have access to a number of health care providers, including two primary care physicians, nurse care managers, case managers, nurses, peer support specialists, a registered dietitian and more.

Services include blood sugar and blood pressure monitoring, diabetes education, exercise classes and yoga, cooking classes and nutritional education, peer support, relaxation training, help with quitting smoking and help with weight loss. Most of these activities are free, and we still have plenty of room for new clients.

If you would like to learn more about these services, or about integrated care models in general, please feel free to contact the Strawhun Center at (219) 736-7297 or the Stark Center at (219) 392-6014.

Don Levinson is chairman of the Regional Mental Health Center board. The opinion expressed in this column is the writer's and not necessarily that of The Times.