Is Vermont falling short when it comes to mental health care?

BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) A new report says mental health is the biggest health challenge facing Vermonters. Our Cat Viglienzoni explains what's being done to tackle the problem.

The Community Health Needs Assessment is done every three years and data from this influences where money is invested to fix issues. Here's a look at which areas have improved and which need more work.

This 117-page report, just released last week, is the result of three years of asking you what you think are the most pressing health issues.

More than 2,000 people participated in Chittenden and Grand Isle counties, including residents, community leaders, organizations and more.

"They're a way to gauge what the community is feeling and then bring our partners together to meet those needs," said Dr. Stephen Leffler, the interim president of the University of Vermont Medical Center.

This 2019 assessment identified six key areas of need:

1. Mental Health
2. Substance Abuse Disorder
3. Affordable Housing
4. Childhood & Family Health
5. Disease Prevention
6. Cancer

Leffler says mental health was ranked the greatest need because there's a shortage of inpatient capacity and mental health also has ripple effects throughout many other areas of a person's life.

"Your overall mental health has a big impact on your overall health. So, we know people who have untreated mental health issues often have other chronic health issues like diabetes, hypertension," Leffler said.

He says there were a couple encouraging notes. Housing-- the number one issue in 2016-- dropped to the number three spot. Leffler says that's because after the 2016 report they took steps to invest in solutions.

Reporter Cat Viglienzoni: Why is housing a medical issue?
Dr. Stephen Leffler: If you don't have a warm, secure, safe house to go to at the end of the night, you can't address any of your medical needs.

And Leffler says substance abuse, while still number two on the list, has also been where they've invested people and resources. It's paying off.

"We're starting to see some results there," he said.

While this report focused on just two counties, the state's health care advocate says what it found reflects issues they are hearing about across Vermont, though he adds dental care to the list of community health needs his office hears about frequently. And he says there is another key point to underscore:

"Whenever you're talking about basic access to care issues, you can't miss affordability. People have a hard time finding the care they need not only because it's hard to find the care they need in their community, but they also can't afford getting it," said Mike Fisher, the Vermont Health Care advocate.

Leffler says he expects many of those issues-- mental health, housing, substance abuse-- to remain on the list for decades. But he's hoping that as the community invests in solutions, other issues will rise to the top instead.

Click here to read the full report.