Content Warning: This piece includes mention of drug abuse, drug related death, eating disorders, and mental health crises.
At a Reunions weekend forum on mental health, alumni panelists whose work deals with mental health discussed the failings of the current insurance system in addressing the mental health crisis, the importance of openness and discussion on issues of mental health, and their personal experiences.
The May 20 event was moderated by Director of Counseling and Psychological Services Dr. Calvin R. Chin. Panelists included Larry Arata ’82, the co-founder of the Opioid Crisis Action Network (OCAN), Carinthia Bank ’17, who works as a therapist, Jennifer Balink ’87, the executive director of Kindred Place, Neha Uberoi ’12, a psychotherapist who counsels athletes, and Oona Miller Hanson ’97, who works with young people suffering from eating disorders.
Arata, along with his wife Heather, founded OCAN following their son Brendan’s death from a drug overdose in 2017. The organization provides grants to those in recovery from opioid addiction to pay for rent, medical bills, and transportation.
“We founded OCAN because over 70,000 people died along with Brendan in 2017,” Areta said at the panel, “because it should not be harder to find best practices treatment for a loved one suffering from depression and substance abuse disorder than it was to shop heart surgeons for Heather’s dad or cancer surgeons for my mom.”
He mentioned that Brendan had been 96 days sober when he died, but he had suffered urges to relapse during that time. His sister had driven him to a treatment center, where medical personnel agreed to admit him, but his insurance provider denied coverage.
“Our insurance company, one of the best in Pennsylvania, refused covering his admittance because it was not medically necessary,” Arata said. “Urges are treatable.”
He said he heard similar accounts from others when he ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives for Pennsylvania’s 5th Congressional district in 2018. With colleagues from OCAN, Arata also wrote Senate Bill 975, which would “prohibit anyone from being turned away for treatment or coverage of treatment for being sober,” Arata said at the forum. The bill is currently pending before the Pennsylvania State Senate.
Bank, who works as a therapist in both public and private practice, said she shared concerns that Arata expressed regardng insurance companies.
“There are certain things that I need in order to do my best work with patients and clients. And there are a lot of obstacles with the way that the system is currently,” she said. “We need to have more treatment options so that it’s easier to accept people when they’re not in crisis.”
Balink, the director of Kindred Place, discussed what she’s learned in her work through the organization, which provides counseling and group therapy to parents, families, and individuals.
“One of the things that we’ve learned in the last five years is that every family struggles, every person struggles in some ways at different times in our lives,” she said. “And to talk about that as something intervention-focused I find very unhelpful and instead think about how we all support ourselves in our personal health, our personal mental well-being.”
She, like Arata and Bank, spoke of the need for reform, saying that “it’s almost impossible to get help if you’re not in big trouble.”
“You can’t get an annual wellness visit for mental health and have it covered by insurance. So if you don’t have the resources to check in with a therapist every once in a while,” she said, “you have to pay for it.”
Uberoi, who works as a psychotherapist and counsels athletes, shared her experience with an eating disorder as a tennis player during college.
“Other athletes weren’t really coming out talking about their mental health or what they suffered. My classmates didn’t tell me how much they were struggling in the classes, that they didn’t do well in a class. There really wasn’t an open sort of environment to talk about mental health,” she said.
“The need for achievement,” Uberoi added. “All the great qualities that make us special as a Princeton community can also be very detrimental and harmful.”
She said that as a psychotherapist, she focuses on determining how to bridge the gap between achievement, for which she said she often has “to numb [her] emotions.”
Miller Hanson, who works with young people suffering from eating disorders, spoke about how she coaches parents to “raise kids who have a healthy relationship with food and their body.”
Eating disorders, she said, “can happen to anyone; any gender, any race, any body size, any socioeconomic status and more pediatricians, teachers, and coaches need this information.”
Chin asked the panelists what they think the most impactful reform is “that would address the mental health crisis.”
Balink said that a change in how individuals approach mental health would help.
“Thinking of it as wellness as part of physical health in the individual mindset,” she said.
Hanson added that paying mental health workers more is also necessary.
“We really need to honor the high quality care that these professionals are offering families otherwise, we’re really, we’re going to have a complete absence of psychiatry and other mental health services at a time when we need it most,” she said.
Balink mentioned that making it easier for patients to obtain insurance reimbursements for care is also important.
Chin then asked the speakers how parents and mental health professionals can adequately support children, to which Uberoi spoke about the challenges parents face.
“We do not have to be mothers or caregivers with the correct amount of support that is required to develop and nurture emotionally stable children,” she said. “So for me, when I think about reform, I think about the very early stages of caregiver support, and that looks like free childcare education for parents.”
Hanson said that preventing eating disorders from developing must start early in school.
“Even preschool kids are being taught to fear foods, label foods, categorize foods as healthy or unhealthy, which is sort of a code for good or bad,” she said. “I think it really does start in the toddler years, to really help families have that healthy relationship with food in the home.”
Chin then accepted questions from the audience.
Cameron Stout ’80 shared his experience suffering from depression and alcoholism, which he said led him to become a mental health advocate. He said he discovered that “insurance issues are huge” during his time in recovery.
“So has anyone on the panel heard of a way to bring more pressure to bear on the insurance companies?” Stout asked.
Arata said that some progress had been made since he founded OCAN.
“When we started this organization, insurance companies weren’t even reimbursing for medication-assisted treatment for addiction and they were saying it was not always medically necessary.” He said that now he rarely “hear[s] anybody say that they were denied the bursary for their medication.”
He added that a national strategy is important, rather than relegating responsibilities to states.
Chin finished by asking panelists for their individual call to action to act on the mental health crisis.
Arata emphasized spirituality, noting that his faith helped him after his son’s death. He, however, added that “our spiritual community needs to stop the stigma associated with those who are addressing their addiction.”
Bank mentioned the importance of simply talking about mental health and not waiting until a crisis. Uberoi echoed this sentiment, emphasizing the importance of being vulnerable with others and “sharing your joys and your sorrows.”
The event was held in Robertson 100 at 10:30 a.m.
Sandeep Mangat is an Associate News Editor who has reported on labor shortages on and off campus, University guidelines regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, international student life, and research led by Princeton faculty. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @s_smangat.