Linked to Mental Wellness

Jan 5, 2006
Baltimore Sun

When the ailment is physical, people typically know what to do: call the doctor, head to the hospital or consult the Internet for medical advice.

When the ailment is behavioral, mental health professionals say, many don't know what to do or whom to turn to, or they hesitate at the thought of talking to a psychiatrist.

Mental health officials in Anne Arundel County say they want to open people's minds to valuing mental wellness. That means eliminating the stigma associated with treatment. They say they believe they have found a solution, one that's catching on across America: an interactive, community-based Web site that serves as a one-stop shop for questions on mental health.

The county's Mental Health Agency this month became the second jurisdiction in Maryland to join Network of Care, a national Web site that provides people with information about illnesses, treatment options and insurance plans.

The site, run by California-based Trilogy Integrated Resources, enables people to get answers about behavioral issues for friends and loved ones - or for themselves - away from public view.

The Anne Arundel Mental Health Agency paid $30,000 in start-up costs for the site, which can be accessed for free from networkofcare.org. Trilogy also charges a monthly maintenance fee to update the site.

Frank Sullivan, executive director of the county Mental Health Agency, says it's money well spent, especially if the site encourages more people to pursue mental wellness. The site lets users browse more than 30,000 documents, all written in layman's terms, Sullivan said.

"The stigma problem is huge," Sullivan said. "If people can access information in the privacy of their own home, they will be much more likely to use it. ... Americans need to understand that mental health is crucial to their overall health."

What's unique about the site is that, while national in scope, it is tailored to the local level, mental health professionals say. The format allows residents to view a comprehensive list of local providers and compare care and insurance options with counties in seven other states, including Pennsylvania, California and New York. By learning about potentially better resources in other regions, residents could choose to lobby local officials and care providers for improved services, mental health professionals say.

Anne Arundel's site offers about 175 service providers within the county, Trilogy officials say. Sullivan says he thought that number might grow as other providers learn of the site and place their information there.

The site has become so popular that health officials from counties throughout Maryland have asked the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to consider creating a state link for the site. Worcester County was the first to join Network of Care, in April.

Susan Steinberg, deputy director for community programs and managed care at the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, calls the site "an excellent program." She says she knew of no other site like it in private industry. The state agency offers a Web source for mental health resources, but it is less comprehensive than Network for Care, she adds.

Steinberg says counties were considering banding together to share the costs.

State and county mental health officials across the country are turning to the Internet in increasing numbers since a presidential commission in 2003 championed the use of technology as a means of informing the public about mental health treatment.

"People were confused about what services were available and where to find them," Sullivan said. "That keeps coming up over and over."

The commission made that recommendation after viewing a presentation of the Network of Care site, which was being created at the time in a $2 million joint effort with Trilogy, the state of Cal