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Grant awarded to Upstate Foundation will fund program to aid area primary care physicians in diagnosis and treatment of mental health issues in patients

The Upstate Foundation has been awarded a $100,000 grant to improve mental health services in central New York.

The support comes from the Patrick P. Lee Foundation, a private, Buffalo-based foundation focused on mental health and education. The Lee Foundation provided similar grants to improve access to mental health services to Horizon Health Services and Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT).

“We selected innovative programs at Horizon Health, RIT and Upstate Foundation that expand and redefine the traditional mental health workforce to include other trusted partners, such as primary care,” said Lee Foundation Executive Director Jane Mogavero. “Our goal is not to replace clinical services, but to create more opportunities.”   

Upstate Medical University will utilize intensive workshops and the Project ECHO platform to increase the capacity of primary and family medicine providers in the eight counties of central New York to systematically screen, identify, treat, and appropriately refer patients suffering from mental health disorders. In Project ECHO, which uses video technology, Upstate experts function as the “hub” to deliver education, knowledge and best practices to the primary care clinicians in the region.

The goal is for primary providers to enhance their competencies in the treatment of mild to moderate mental health disorders and provide much needed mental health care in a timely and appropriate manner. Upstate will also provide information about appropriate referrals, particularly with complex situations, encourage comfort in a consultation model and enable the development of a collaborative care pathway between the providers and psychiatrists.

Nevena Radonjic, MD, PhD and Seetha Ramanathan, MD, from the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, are leading this project and applaud this opportunity to support greater access to mental health expertise for patients.

“Most primary care physicians are already addressing a large number of mental health issues in their patients" explains Radonjic. "This effort, supported by the Lee Foundation, will help strengthen their capabilities. We anticipate that at the end of every cycle of training, primary care physicians will be able to notice an increase in their competencies to address a range of mental health needs and make appropriate referrals when needed".

“This effort will not only improve competencies, but can also act as the first step towards establishing a more streamlined system of care between the primary care and mental health systems,” says Ramanathan.

An estimated 122 million Americans – including 4 million in New York – live in a mental health shortage area, as designated by the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA). Although the workforce shortage existed prior to the pandemic, the recent increase in demand for mental health services has made the situation even more critical. In 2020, four in 10 adults in the United States reported symptoms of anxiety or depression – a significant increase from the previous year when one in 10 adults reported these symptoms. 

The Lee Foundation issued a request for proposals inviting nonprofit organizations from western and central New York to develop programs that implemented the clinical recommendations presented in  Enhancing the capacity of the mental health and addiction workforce: A framework, by Anita Burgos, Ph.D., and Benjamin Miller, Psy.D. The policy paper, commissioned by the Lee Foundation and three other philanthropic partners, identifies actionable solutions to mitigate the current strain on the mental health system. Solutions include partnering with primary care physicians to ensure more timely interventions for patients needing mental health services. 

What’s driving this increase in mental health concerns? “Rates of depression and anxiety were already increasing prior to the pandemic; however, with the pandemic, social and economic instability, the prevalence of mood and anxiety disorder have increased,” Ramanathan said. “We may also be seeing an increase because of the ongoing awareness and destigmatizing efforts in the community.” She adds that training programs to increase the number of mental health professionals have not kept pace with the demand or need.

“The purpose of this effort is to support the ongoing efforts of our primary care physicians with adequate training and continuous education,” explains Radonjic.

The Upstate Foundation’s Eileen Pezzi thanked the Lee Foundation for its support of Upstate’s programming. “So many people in our community have limited access to mental health services,” said Pezzi, Upstate vice president for development. “We are incredibly thankful for the support of the Patrick P. Lee Foundation to strengthen the capacity of our mental health workforce, which will increase the availability of services to those in need. We are honored to be selected as one of only three funded projects during the Lee Foundation’s call for proposals and we look forward to partnering with them on this important initiative.”


Caption: Nevena Radonjic, MD, PhD, and Seethalakshmi Ramanathan, MD, are principal investigators of the study.


About the Patrick P. Lee Foundation

Patrick P. Lee Foundation was established in 2007 when Patrick P. Lee sold 

International Motion Control (IMC), one of the world’s premier manufacturers of shock absorption and vibration isolation products. Based in Buffalo, N.Y., the Lee Foundation is a private family foundation dedicated to having immediate and measurable impact in two key investment areas — mental health and education.  For more information, contact Jane Mogavero, Executive Director, 716.844.3100, [email protected].