//Adrienne Mansanares, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Rockies. Photo provided by PPRM.
Now that the pandemic is dragging into its third year, many are tired of the constant remote appointments, the demands of life piling up while stuck at home. Although COVID-19 itself is very real and can be deadly, the isolation, depression and domestic abuse issues linked to seclusion are also incredibly serious.
With this in mind, Colorado Access, the state’s Medicaid contractor, and Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, or PPRM, announced they were joining forces in September 2021 to bring mental health to folks seeking sexual healthcare—consensually, of course.
“We really identified an opportunity to use a screening tool for folks who visit PPRM for appointments,” explained Rob Bremer, Ph.D., vice president of network strategy at Colorado Access. “Through the identification of depressive symptoms, we’re also able to help create a partnership with some of our longer-term therapy providers that are contracted with us to streamline referrals that come through Planned Parenthood. We screen and identify those that need treatment and then refer them to treatment to provide that wraparound care.”
The partnership grew out of concern surrounding a study by the Journal of American Medical Association that was published in February 2021, which found that emergency room visits due to suicide attempts, overdoses and intimate partner violence increased significantly during the onset of the pandemic, between March and October 2020. Before rolling out the mental health screenings at all Planned Parenthood clinics, they piloted the program at the Littleton location starting in May. The idea was simple: Ask folks who are seeking treatment at PPRM about the state of their mental health. As folks with vaginas, the majority of PPRM patients face marginalization of some sort, and COVID has increased mental health issues across the board. Still, screening for mental wellness is a complex and delicate process.
For one thing, asking screening questions is easy enough. But following that up with actionable, affirming mental health services is more difficult to coordinate.
“It’s really important for us to have, as a health plan, a choice of providers in a diverse network so that our members can seek the providers that are culturally sensitive to their needs—that understand the unique needs. Whether it be physical or mental disability, sexual identity, it’s extremely important to us that we do our best to make sure that we have a network available for our members to meet all of those needs,” said Danielle Peters, practice facilitator at Colorado Access.
The goal is to make it clear that help is available. According to Bremer, the team hopes to catch mental health issues before the patient is in crisis and seeking emergency help. By intervening early, folks can safely seek mental health help before problems compound and their lives are severely impacted.
And for the most part, this line of questioning goes over well with those seeking physical healthcare from PPRM. Now just a month after the program was officially rolled out at all 17 Colorado locations, the team is seeing a positive response.
“I have to tell you, at first, I did feel a little anxious about doing this because I know our patients come to Planned Parenthood to get their trusted sexual, reproductive healthcare,” said Adrienne Mansanares, president and CEO of PPRM. “I wasn’t sure how they would respond to some questions about how they were doing overall with their own behavioral health. But, when we piloted it in the health center, I was delighted by the response. Our patients were so thankful.”
Mansanares tells the story of a nonbinary person who came to an appointment for a birth control shot and simultaneously dealt with back pain from a car accident. The screening questions elicited a strong response in the patient, who cried and brought up a previous incident of abuse. They left the appointment receiving the sexual healthcare they came for along with resources to find mental health support.
“I truly believe we’re saving lives, ” Mansanares concluded. “Suicidal ideation is going up, and people are having a really hard time coming around to that place of hope and seeing that they can make it through. And so, whether that then is coupled with substance abuse or drinking or whatever it may be, I know that we’re saving lives. We’re helping people to identify that there’s hope, that there are resources, that they’re not alone, and that what they’re experiencing is common, and they’re going to get through it.”
Peters admitted that witnessing the program’s expansion and how many people have been supported by it has gone beyond anything she could have ever imagined when it first began.
“It’s been really successful and I’m just really excited to see it grow and expand, to help even more people.”
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