SOUTH PORTLAND — In 2010, two years after a network of affiliated Maine-based mental health care providers was created – Maine Mental Health Partners, a division of MaineHealth – this newspaper ran an editorial with the headline: “Our View: Mental health group promising new model.

Today, the promise of creating a fully coordinated, seamless system of behavioral health care for Maine people suffering with serious mental health problems has taken a giant step forward.

With a Dec. 5 vote by the MaineHealth board of directors, following board votes by all the organizations representing Maine Mental Health Partners – Westbrook’s Spring Harbor Hospital, Community Counseling Center in Portland, Saco-based Counseling Center, Inc., Rockland’s Mid-Coast Mental Health Center and Spring Harbor Community Services – Maine Mental Health Partners has been merged into a single, unified organization.

Mergers of health care organizations are not unique, or even unusual, but the new Maine Mental Health Partners (soon to have a new name) is unique – to our state and possibly even to the nation.

No other behavioral health organization in Maine has the breadth, depth and reach of Maine Mental Health Partners, blending three large community mental health agencies with southern Maine’s only psychiatric hospital, all under the umbrella of the state’s largest behavioral and medical health care delivery system. The new organization’s reach extends from Rockland to Kittery, north to south, and deep into western Maine.

The promise of a regional and national model for a high-quality, coordinated, easily accessible and navigable behavioral health system that leads its clients/patients to recovery, independence and dignity is now very real indeed.

It took us five years to get here. As the network was being built, it became increasingly clear that our organizational structure didn’t encourage communication and prevented those we serve from accessing seamlessly coordinated care. The need to improve care was further compounded by external factors to reform health care, nationally and at the state level, as well as financial pressure to ensure long-term sustainability and the ability to thrive in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

Apart from all these reasons, we knew merging was simply the best thing to do for our clients and patients, present and future.

To achieve our ultimate goal – to coordinate care that addresses the range of behavioral and medical needs – we knew we had to transform the delivery of care. To that end, Maine Mental Health Partners has invested more than $5 million in our CareFirst Maine initiative.

This initiative is driven by a desire to create a delivery system and a culture that always puts the individual first and focuses on the quality of care – both their experiences and their clinical outcomes – while better managing cost. This transformation will ensure that Maine Mental Health Partners will serve its clients/patients better while concurrently being more accountable to the larger communities we serve.

There are a number of technical aspects to this initiative, like implementing a systemwide electronic health record, standardizing practices and protocols and establishing a workable interface with our MaineHealth partners and other health care systems. But the heart of the matter is better care, better experiences, better outcomes.

There’s a popular tale about the importance of family unity. In Japanese legend, a clan leader shows his sons that while a single arrow can be broken easily, a bundle of arrows cannot be broken, even by the strongest among them. A similar scene plays out in a fable by Aesop in which another father – a Greek this time – makes the same point about family disunity with a bundle of sticks.

The message in these stories is simple and clear: Union gives us strength. That parable is true, whether we’re a biological family or an organizational family: We are stronger when we bond together than when we stand apart.

Earlier this year, following the tragedy of the Newtown, Conn., mass murder by an apparently mentally disturbed young man, Editorial Page Editor Greg Kesich wrote a powerful opinion piece, titled “Newtown calls for different thinking on mental illness.”

At Maine Mental Health Partners, we are thinking – and acting – differently, for the benefit of Maine’s mentally ill, their families, their communities and the state’s taxpayers, who foot much of the bill. Mental health affects us all. We’re working to set the standard for excellent care.

— Special to the Press Herald