BERNALILLO — Sandoval Regional Medical Center President and CEO Jamie Silva-Steele described the current behavioral health outlook as the “next pandemic” during Wednesday’s Sandoval County Commission meeting.

“It’s unfortunate, but I think that’s where we’re at. If you look not just at us, but everywhere, this is the trend everyone is seeing right now,” Silva-Steele told the Observer. “Right now, our job is trying to figure out strategies to address it.”

During the second half of 2021, SRMC saw the need for behavioral health services rise significantly.

The numbers Silva-Steele presented for July 2021 to November 2021 include:

  • 60 percent increase in monthly outpatient behavioral health visits.
  • 41 percent increase in behavioral health service in the emergency department.
  • 21 percent increase in in-patient psychiatric diagnoses.
  • 27 percent increase in behavioral health-related encounters overall.

Silva-Steele told the Observer the dramatic increases SRMC is seeing are partly related to social isolation and people being away from each other during the pandemic. As a result, she said, people may use substances and alcohol as means to cope.

She also said the other part of the situation is underlying behavioral health issues that haven’t been addressed historically due to things such as lack of access to services.

“For years, access to behavioral health has been crippled,” she said. “So, our ability to bring these services to community members is just why we exist. That’s our goal.”

Jamie Silva-Steele, President and CEO of Sandoval Regional Medical Center, gives the hospital’s latest quarterly update during the Sandoval County commission meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022. (Matt Hollinshead/Observer)

She said one of the main concerns SRMC hears about is the increasing need for behavioral health services.

Because it’s not a psychiatric hospital, Silva-Steele said SRMC would have to add a new, secure unit to accommodate in-patient psychiatric beds. She said it’s not part of the hospital’s current infrastructure, but it could be reassessed during SRMC’s regular strategic planning period.

For the time being, Silva-Steele said in-patient psychiatric care takes place at UNM Hospital, the psychiatric center in Albuquerque or one of SRMC’s community partners with in-patient beds.

Silva-Steele said SRMC’s added psychologists, psychiatrists and counselors, which is increasing the number of patient referrals and volumes.

With more people seeking help, Silva-Steele told the Observer SRMC’s trying to stay ahead of the curve. After adding providers last year, she said the hospital’s anticipating adding more providers this upcoming fiscal year.

“We’ll monitor to see what that’s like,” she said. “It seems like as we add (providers), more patients come, which is not a bad thing because that’s what we want to be able to do, is provide the service,” she said. “It’s hard to know the demand for the services. And you really don’t know until you’ve actually added the provider that’s seeing patients and the access.”

The next possible steps

Silva-Steele told the Observer SRMC looks to bolster things like Zoom appointments between providers and patients for better, faster access.

She also said SRMC is exploring peer-support strategies involving a “buddy system” approach.

Following up with jail detainees

Silva-Steele told the Observer SRMC immediately made contact with three out of 10 Sandoval County Detention Center inmates to discuss behavioral health service plans, but is still working on reaching the other seven, the last she had heard.

“A lot of people just generally don’t know what resources are available in communities,” she said. “Our job with this particular program is to educate them and to find out what things are creating barriers for (them) right now.”

She also said a social worker with SRMC can help address specific needs, whether someone’s struggling to pay bills or does not have a telephone.

Community outreach program collaboration

Silva-Steele said SRMC’s launching a program working with Rio Rancho Public Schools, Bernalillo High School and first responders to address mental health first aid, which features a teen and youth component, and suicide prevention.

“If somebody’s in a crisis, everybody knows how to react, what to do and how to get the person to safety… To me, this is something that becomes part of our toolbox,” Silva-Steele told the Observer.

She said SRMC plans to also expand the program into the county’s rural and tribal communities, adding the hospital’s already working with Cuba Independent School District.