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Q&A with Meridian Behavioral Healthcare CEO Maggie Labarta


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Meridian Behavioral Healthcare is a private nonprofit that aids those affected by mental illness and substance-use disorders in and around North Central Florida. Its main campus is located in Gainesville at the corner of Williston Road and Southwest 13th Street, where it provides a variety of assistance programs to local residents.

WUFT News spoke with Meridian president and CEO Maggie Labarta about the nonprofit’s efforts. Labarta is a clinical psychologist with more than 25 years of health care management experience.

WUFT: In its annual report to the community, Meridian highlighted efforts to work with the centers (of Marion and Citrus counties) and LifeStream Behavioral Center to improve care. How do you plan to do this?

Labarta:  This is something that’s a growing trend in health care. For us it will mean being able to have a space to actually have a primary care clinic on site. It will be with either partnering with or learning how to do that. Some of it is just a learning curve and some of it is that the system is not set up for that just yet, and so we’d have to figure out a way to do some kind of a pilot where we could have some funding to get that started. The patients’ care is fragmented and often not optimal and what we’re looking to do is to become integrated as much as possible with the rest of the healthcare community so that when we’re treating a patient, that person’s care is viewed from all angles. One of the things we’re trying to do, for example, is we outpost some staff at least a few days a week in a number of primary care settings.

WUFT: Patients of varying financial backgrounds come to Meridian, but what options are there for those in need?

Labarta: [We] do take third party insurance, we do take self-pay for folks who can afford to pay, but we are the provider that was created to address the needs of those without resources of their own who need access to services.

WUFT: One issue that affects all mental health patients and providers is the stigma that is attached to people who seek treatment for mental issues or substance-abuse problems.  How does Meridian handle this issue?

Labarta: I don’t think it is any different a process than with other illnesses. You know, epilepsy, seizure disorders being an excellent example, people believed that those who exhibited seizures were possessed, and they were certainly stigmatized. I think the more we understand an illness, the more that we then become accepting of it and the more you understand that the things that people experience as different or frightening about someone with a mental illness are really the products of a brain that is not functioning as designed. Also the treaters, it is the providers of care that are stigmatized, so part of the problem we have in our mental health and substance-abuse treatment system is that it too was considered less worthy as a result of the stigma. It too was isolated, it too was defunded, so the system of care suffers from the same problems that the sufferers of the illness do.

WUFT: One step Meridian has undertaken to combat the stigma, and to help people understand the mental health issues are, is a class?

Labarta: I think one excellent tool right now is a course called mental health first aid, which is just what it says. It’s very much like the Red Cross first aid class. It helps people understand that there is a biological base to these illnesses and how it is that these folks who are affected might behave or sound, and it really gives people some very concrete skills to use when confronting that kind of a situation. I think when you have that understanding, and you feel like there is something that can be done, then you don’t distrust it, you’re not as fearful of it and the stigma then is significantly decreased.

Labarta says if people are interested in taking the class, they can contact Meridian in Gainesville at 352-374-5600.

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