NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – One of the oldest and largest behavioral health systems is joining with one of the largest hospital systems in New Jersey.

Historically, mental and behavioral healthcare has been undervalued, partly because of poor reimbursement and because of the stigma of mental illness, reports CBS2’s Dr. Max Gomez.

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Now with the opioid crisis, suicide rates, and PTSD in returning veterans, mental health can no longer be ignored.
In a major move to address this growing problem, the Carrier Clinic has joined with Hackensack Meridian Health to improve access to mental and behavioral health treatment.

“I was using Oxycontin, Oxycodone, eventually graduated to heroin,” said addiction patient Leah Buttacavoli, who lived in her addiction to narcotics for more than 10 years.

“My world was caving in around me,” she said. “I needed treatment.”

She was in and out of various rehab center more than 30 times, and nothing seemed to work.

Donald Parker, the CEO of Carrier Clinic, says that while opioid abuse is now in the news, it’s only the tip of the mental health iceberg.

“Mental health is the number one chronic disease in the world and its the number one reason for work disability,” he said. “It’s not just the person with the problem, it’s a community problem.”

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Parker poised the merger with Hackensack Meridian as a win-win.

“This is a dream for access,” he said. “We’re deploying across 17 hospitals in New Jersey from the north all the way to the south. This means better access, better research, better financing.”

Another reason for the partnership is that mental health underlies and undermines treatment for many illnesses, so better mental health also means physical health.

It took a few tries at Carrier, but eventually, this is where Buttacavoli was able to get sober.

“Carrier was my safety net, they cared,” she said. “t’s like I’m finally living my life. I’m so grateful.”

Historically, there’s been acute care hospitals and a small number of clinics for behavioral health.

Often when a person has a mental health crisis, they go to an emergency room that is usually not equipped to deal with those problems.

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The new merger will remedy that by staffing emergency room and joining hospitals and mental health centers.