Commentary: Focusing on the Whole Patient

Commentary: Focusing on the Whole Patient

Many of you have heard of Neighborhood Health, the non-profit community health center serving more than 20,000 patients in Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax County. What you may not know is that in addition to primary medical and dental care, behavioral health is treated as a vital part of patients’ overall well-being.

It begins when a patient walks through the door of any Neighborhood Health clinic and completes a universal screening assessment that can identify potential mental health concerns. Patients coming in for medical care can be suffering from undiagnosed depression, anxiety, acute stress, trauma, adjustment to life transitions, ADHD, school-related behavior challenges, parenting difficulties and more.

In addition, it is not uncommon for people dealing with certain chronic conditions – especially diabetes -- to be at a higher risk for depression. Assessments also screen for substance use issues, including drugs, alcohol and tobacco. All of these issues can be addressed with assistance from Neighborhood Health’s licensed behavioral health clinicians.

Director of Behavioral Health Courtney Riggle-van Schagen is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and has been recognized for outstanding service to survivors of domestic violence. “Almost everyone encounters a time in their life when accessing the services of a behavioral health specialist can help them be healthier and more productive,” she said.

By having patients complete their health assessment, underlying issues can be identified and discussed with their primary care provider who may introduce them to a behavioral health providers who is part of the same treatment team.

From there, patients have the opportunity to discuss their stressors or other concerns, and if desired, schedule regular appointments to cooperatively develop a plan of action and follow up on their progress regularly. Riggle-van Schagen pointed out that she and the other Neighborhood Health counselors are well aware of and sensitive to the stigma that patients face when seeking mental health treatment, and that among of the benefits of receiving services at one of their facilities is that they can receive the treatment in the same location as their medical or dental care, making services accessible and reducing the barriers that patients face as they take the initial steps toward improving their health.

After building trust with their primary care provider and overcoming their initial reluctance to seek mental health services, patients are put at ease by their behavioral health specialists, all of whom are licensed, and many of whom are bilingual, enabling them to communicate with patients whose first language is not English.

Through establishing long-term relationships between clinicians and patients and making it convenient to access services, Riggle-van Schagen explained that they are able to help those who initially say that they don’t need help. “We open the door,” she said. “It creates an opportunity and that’s the benefit of integrated care.”

One exciting new behavioral/medical integration project is supported by the Virginia Health Care Foundation, which is funding five health centers throughout the commonwealth on a project called “Defeating the Deadly Double: Diabetes and Depression.”

As part of this project, Neighborhood Health has been able to offer the services of a Certified Diabetic Educator and an Integrated Care Manager to adult patients with uncontrolled diabetes who also screen positive for depression. Intensive diabetic education, group classes, blood glucose monitoring, regular phone follow-up, and behavioral health services are provided to these patients, many of whom are showing improvements after only a few months.

Behavioral health treatment can also begin at an early age, whether a patient is a grade schooler, the parent of an elementary school student, or a college student: “good mental health is just as important as physical health for academic success,” says Riggle-van Schagen. Taking the steps toward improving mental health can feel overwhelming, at any age. Whether symptoms arise in early childhood, the teen years, as a parent, or are the result of workplace stress, which can have significant negative health impacts. Wellness can seem unachievable. “But recovery is a reality” says Riggle-van Schagen. Often it only takes “planting the seed” for a patient to begin to realize their need for behavioral health services which leads them taking that first step towards treatment, and eventually overcoming their struggles.

According to the Mental Health Association, behavioral health is one of a person’s greatest assets, helping them to focus at work, overcome obstacles, get along with the people around them and get well and stay well. “Neighborhood Health is committed to supporting not only the physical wellness of our patients, but their emotional health as well,” says Riggle-van Schagen.

Neighborhood Health is hosting its annual fundraising gala and charity auction on Friday, Nov. 9 at the Ritz Carlton in Pentagon City. Festivities begin at 6:30 p.m., and they are delighted that Honorary Chairs U.S. Rep. Don Beyer and Megan Beyer will be on-hand to celebrate and to help hand out a special Health Equity Award to 27 Virginia delegates and state senators who represent Alexandria, Arlington County and Fairfax County. This award recognizes their hard work towards Medicaid expansion this past General Assembly session. Gala tickets can be purchased at

Behavioral health services are available at its locations in Alexandria at 2 East Glebe Road and 1200 North Howard St., and in Fairfax County at 6677 Richmond Highway in Mount Vernon. For more information about Neighborhood Health please visit The schedule an appointment please call 703-535-5568.