Letter to the Editor of Counterpoint

By Paul E. Jarris, MD, MBA
Vermont Commissioner of Health

The joining of the Division of Mental Health with the Department of Health should be good news to all Vermonters, and to mental health advocates in particular. It constitutes state government’s official endorsement of a public health approach to mental health treatment and care, and it represents a giant step in the direction of full parity.

The business of the Department of Health is to enable Vermonters to lead healthy lives in healthy communities. We take a comprehensive approach to all health issues, and our public health efforts focus on assisting individuals in getting the knowledge and skills they need to thrive. With respect to our mental health system, this will require that we continue support for the social, housing, employment, economic support, and recovery education components of treatment and care.

In recent years, public health professionals throughout the country have led the way in questioning and challenging reliance on a purely medical model of care. Public health practitioners spend significant time emphasizing well being, healthy lifestyles, safe environments, prevention, and recovery. Rather than a medicalized approach, we emphasize a holistic approach to wellness and health maintenance.

There is much enthusiasm in the Vermont Department of Health about what we can do together in ensuring and advocating for vital community supports. Key to those efforts will be the Health Department’s 12 district offices, which work very closely with individuals and organizations in local communities throughout the state.

One of the most important initiatives being undertaken by the Department of Health today involves developing comprehensive planned care for people living with life-long illnesses such as diabetes, asthma and cardiovascular disease. Effective self-management tools and community supports are key to the success of this initiative.

This model is very similar to the recovery model that is so important in the treatment and support of persons with serious mental illness. The lessons learned in the mental health system regarding the provision of vital community supports for those living with psychiatric illnesses will be valuable to us in our chronic care initiative. We are eager to learn from the experience of the metal health community.

As a physician entering practice, I purposefully chose to become a family care doctor because of my commitment to improving patients’ health and wellbeing at every stage of life. As the leader of the Department of Health, I am committed to improving the overall health of the entire population, from birth to death.

Joining mental health and other public health programs and services within the same department recognizes the fact that physical and mental health are practically inseparable throughout a person’s life. I believe that this move will be in the interests of all Vermonters.

I am committed to a Department of Health that assertively promotes public health, including the vital areas of mental health and substance abuse. I believe that the Agency of Human Services’ reorganization sharpens the focus on mental health and substance abuse in a very positive way.

I read in the recent issue of Counterpoint about the concerns being raised in reaction to the reorganization plan. The questions raised were certainly valid questions. I believe the good news is that we can answer them to the satisfaction of all.

As part of my new duties as the head of a public health department that now includes the Division of Mental Health, I invite your participation in a dialogue during the months ahead. I want to learn more about your concerns and I want an opportunity to tell you more about what a public health approach will mean to mental health care in Vermont.