Sanford, UND unveil Behavioral Health Bridge

Website aims to limit long-term mental health effects from COVID-19 pandemic

Counselor sits in bright office, smiling at woman facing away from camera.

In a time where monitoring mental health is more important than ever, Sanford Health and The University of North Dakota are making it easier than ever to find support.

The health care system and university partnered to launch the initial phase of the Behavioral Health Bridge, a website filled with mental health resources for those who may be struggling.

Dr. Stephen Wonderlich, M.D, is the vice president of research at Sanford Health in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Andrew McLean is the chair of the department of psychiatry and behavioral science at The University of North Dakota. Together, they played a pivotal role in creating the resource.

Dr. Wonderlich and McLean said a group of 10 individuals looked at mental health resources during the pandemic. They realized the Behavioral Health Bridge was needed, in order to limit long-term mental health impacts stemming from the pandemic.

Find a provider: Behavioral health at Sanford

However, even before the pandemic, there was already a need for this website, as North Dakota had a 57% increase in completed suicides between 1999-2016, the most in the nation.

“There is a great deal of need for mental health resources, information and treatment. Unfortunately, there is also a lot of ‘noise’ out there from various sources, and the Behavioral Health Bridge is one way to bring current and reliable information to the public and providers, including in our rural communities,” said McLean.

“We hope this project will play a role in addressing the behavioral health needs of the region during the pandemic, and beyond,” McLean added.

This project is made possible by generous donors to the Sanford Health Foundation. Funds raised stay local to support unique programs, provide education and help purchase life-saving equipment and technology. The University of North Dakota also supports this project to cover time of faculty, staff and web development.

Dr. Katie Gordon is a Sanford Health women’s health psychologist in Fargo, North Dakota.

Dr. Gordon adds that COVID-19 pandemic only amplified the need for resources, due to job layoffs, and increased social isolation. She says there’s been a 300% increase in suicide calls to U.S. help lines.

Available resources

McLean and Dr. Wonderlich say the behavioral health bridge website features sections on behavioral health, stress and coping, caring, support and treatment, and health care providers.

Each section offers information on warning signs, and how to support either yourself or a loved one displaying signs and symptoms.

Dr. Gordon, who didn’t have a hand in the website’s creation, but rather has been providing mental health care for years, says there are specific warning signs to look for.

“A sudden change in mood, agitation, restlessness, talking about death, talking about suicide, feeling trapped or hopeless, sleep disturbances, like an increase of nightmares and insomnia,” said Dr. Gordon.

“To support someone showing these signs, a big thing that can help is just to listen. Say to them what you’re observing, and listen to them non-judgmentally. Allow them to talk about what they’re feeling,” she added.

Related: Managing mental well-being after COVID-19 quarantine

According to recent research, men die by suicide at three and a half times the rate women do.

The reason? Despite recent improvements, there’s still a stigma.

“For men’s mental health, there’s cultural pressure to not express emotions. Even though this has improved over time, there’s still reluctance to seek help when they’re struggling,” according to Dr. Gordon.

Caring for rural populations

Dr. Wonderlich says states like North and South Dakota are comprised of many rural towns, which presents challenges for the availability of care.

He sites this as a catalyst for creating the Behavioral Health Bridge.

“We did this during the pandemic, but this resource has been needed for North Dakota for a long time. We’re a large state with rural environments, and we have to get these resources to people.

“This technology might be a great way to do this, in order to connect with people who might be far away from providers,” Dr. Wonderlich said.

More: Sanford chief medical officer: Don’t put your health on hold

Along with providing easier access to resources, Dr. Wonderlich explains this website may help alleviate mental health provider shortages.

“North Dakota has a significant mental health provider shortage. If we have a second pandemic, that being mental health, this technology would help us better reach out to them, versus going to traditional clinics because they’re so far away.”

Next phase

Dr. Wonderlich and McLean say there will be consistent updates to the site.

They, and the other eight individuals who created this resource, say launching behavioral health bridge was “just the first phase.”

“We’re gearing up for the next six months. We’re adding new information on suicide prevention. We’ll add a clinician corner, where patients can reach out to mental health clinicians and pose questions to them,” said Dr. Wonderlich.

The clinician corner will be able to answer questions regarding children and schooling, elders living in supported environments, and ways to promote positive mental health. Additionally, screening tools will soon be implemented.

“Patients can screen themselves for mental health issues to get an idea of how they’re doing, and be able to identify if they’re starting to struggle. We’ll give them feedback about their score, and what it means whether or not they should reach out,” Dr. Wonderlich added.

He stresses the importance of seeking help early.

“Some people think you shouldn’t seek mental health services unless it’s a crisis. But, the truth is that if there are issues it’s better to seek help early on. Your therapist can help decide if you need help or not.”

The National Suicide Hotline phone number is 1-800-273-TALK. Also, there’s the crisis text line. Text HOME to 741741.

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Posted In Allied Health, Behavioral Health, Community, Coronavirus, Fargo, Grand Forks, Rural Health, Wellness

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