Voices from the Field
Working Together to Solve the Behavioral Health Crisis in North Carolina
Sy Atezaz Saeed, MD, MS, FACPsych is Executive Director of the Behavioral Health Service Line for ECU Health, and Professor and Chair Emeritus of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine in the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University.
Contrary to popular belief, psychiatric disorders such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder are just as common as other chronic conditions. About 11 percent of the U.S. population has been diagnosed with Diabetes, while in comparison 26 percent of the population has a diagnosable mental disorder per year.
Unlike other chronic conditions, there are few resources to treat mental illnesses in North Carolina, which is exemplified by the lack of behavioral health providers. Alarmingly, 42 out of 100 counties in the state have no psychiatrist or active behavioral health provider, leaving more than half of adults with mental illness without treatment options.
How did we get here?
In 2001, the state of North Carolina began to privatize mental health services by transitioning them from public area authorities to private provider groups. This transition meant private agencies would become solely responsible for caring for people with behavioral and mental health disorders as well as substance use disorders. For those without access to a local behavioral health professional or without the ability to pay for care, their only option is often the hospital emergency department (ED). In fact, one out of every eight ED visits is related to mental illness or substance use disorders. This puts more strain on EDs, which were not designed for this type of specialized care.
As a community, we need to work together to change the way behavioral health care is delivered in North Carolina. Solving the mental health crisis requires collaboration and partnership across a broad spectrum of services. One way ECU Health is doing this is through a joint venture partnership with Acadia Healthcare, a national leader in providing behavioral health services. Recently, we announced plans to build a state-of-the-art behavioral health hospital that is slated to open in spring 2025, pending regulatory approval.
In addition to serving adult patients, the new hospital will provide much-needed access to the behavioral health needs of children and adolescents, providing the only child and adolescent psychiatric beds within 75 miles of Greenville. Together, both ECU Health and Acadia will invest more than $60 million in expanding behavioral health resources.
Working in tandem with other partner organizations as a network providing a wide variety of treatment options can create a much greater impact than we’re able to on our own.
Everyone deserves access to high-quality health care, and ECU Health is committed to doing its part to offer vital behavioral health treatment to eastern North Carolina. While this partnership provides promise for those who are seeking behavioral health care, my hope is that we continue to find ways to partner in our communities and across the state to ensure our residents have access to the care they need to live healthy, fulfilling lives.
Sy Atezaz Saeed, MD, MS, FACPsych is Executive Director of the Behavioral Health Service Line for ECU Health, and Professor and Chair Emeritus of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine in the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University. He also serves as the Founding Director of the Center for Telepsychiatry at ECU and as the Founding Director of North Carolina Statewide Telepsychiatry Program (NC-STeP). Dr. Saeed has published more than 100 peer reviewed publications. In 2019, he was awarded the prestigious Gov. Oliver Max Gardner Award, the highest UNC award and selected by the UNC Board of Governors, which recognizes UNC system faculty who have “made the greatest contribution to the welfare of the human race.” To learn more, visit ENCBehavioralHealth.org.
 Kessler RC, Chiu WT, Demler O, Walters EE. Prevalence, severity, and comorbidity of twelve-month DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication (NCS-R). Archives of General Psychiatry, 2005 Jun;62(6):617-27.
 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)