Garrett calls for ‘Mental Health Moonshot’ to address nation’s behavioral health crisis

CEO of Hackensack Meridian Health, speaking at event in D.C., says country needs to work together on access, treatment with same effort it used to attack cancer a generation ago

Hackensack Meridian Health CEO Bob Garrett, long a national leader in promoting behavioral health access and care, is doing more to push such treatment to the forefront, publicly calling for a “Mental Health Moonshot,” to tackle the ever-increasing health care crisis.

Garrett, speaking Wednesday at Politico’s 2024 Health Care Summit in Washington, D.C., said the time has come to do more.

“With New Jersey and the nation facing an unparalleled mental health epidemic, we are calling for a mental health moonshot to write a new narrative for behavioral health care,” he said. “We need a multipronged strategy, including expanding access to care, better coordination of care and innovation of treatments.”

Garrett said the nation must be as committed to behavioral health as it was a generation ago in the fight against cancer — an effort that has resulted in a nearly 30% reduction in cancer deaths.

Garrett called on a similar targeted approach to improve treatment for mental illness and addiction to save millions of lives. He spoke about the importance of committing resources to transform mental health care, as well as the ways in which Hackensack Meridian Health is expanding access to — and modernizing — mental health care, combating stigma and focusing on breakthrough research for treatments.

Garrett said HMH has been committed to investing in innovative treatment options, including one option where patients are given wearable devices that can monitor behavior, detect depression and lead to early intervention.

Hackensack Meridian Health has made it a strategic priority for the network to make high-quality, compassionate mental health care services more accessible to the patients and communities it serves. Some recent investments include:

  • An expansion of the Carrier Clinic, an HMH facility, to increase the pediatric and adolescent inpatient unit to 52 beds. The expansion, to be completed by late 2025, will allow psychiatrists to treat and provide residential services for patients as young as 7 years old;
  • An $24 million investment last year in the state-of-the-art Carrier Behavioral Health at Raritan Bay Medical Center. The clinic has 81 beds and provides innovative treatments, including electroconvulsive therapy;
  • An expansion of the behavioral health program at the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine, opening additional residency spots for medical students who are studying psychiatry;
  • An increase in training for nurses throughout the network to help them identify and assist patients in the emergency department who may be experiencing suicidal thoughts. The new training program is part of the network’s partnership with the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide;
  • A commitment to HMH’s innovation accelerator program, Bear’s Den, which is investing in technology that will help make progress toward addressing mental health.

In addition, due to the nationwide shortage of psychiatrists and psychologists to meet the need, Hackensack Meridian Health has been innovative in developing a Telepsych Hub that is available day and night in our emergency departments to assess patients coming into the ED either with a primary behavioral health concern, or a secondary concern, breaking down barriers of access.

Garrett said the impact of behavioral health on all aspects of health care cannot be overstated.

“Too often, mental health and addiction play an outsized role in the social determinants of health of a patient, along with food and housing insecurity,’’ he said. “That is why Hackensack Meridian Health, through a partnership with UniteUs, connects patients with community services that in most cases they did not even know exist. Our organization has done 1.5 million screenings and made more than 3 million referrals, with more than half of the referrals for behavioral health services.’’

The Politico event brought together members of Congress, federal regulators and industry leaders to discuss the future of medicine, including the latest in health tech, new drugs, brain treatments, diagnostics, health equity, workforce strains and more. Participants also considered the ways America’s health care community is striving to meet the evolving needs of patients and practitioners, adopt new technologies and navigate skeptical public attitudes toward science.

Garrett said Congress and the president recently have made some strides in advancing legislation to expand behavioral health care, including budget bills last week, extending Medicaid coverage for specific treatments of substance use disorders.

Garrett said the progress is appreciated, but more needs to be done to make mental health care more accessible.

That’s why Garrett is calling for a “Moonshot” approach.