Expansion of mental health services underway for children in West Texas

Demand for mental health services remains high as Texans grapple with ongoing pandemic stress and economic anxiety. But for people in rural areas of the state — and especially children in those areas — getting adequate mental health care can be a challenge. This is especially true in West Texas, where psychiatrists are even harder to find.

Now, Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso aims to expand access to mental health services for children in West Texas thanks to a recent grant from the Carl B. and Florence E. King Foundation, based in Dallas. Their efforts are part of a statewide program called the Texas Child Mental Health Care Consortium, a collaboration between several universities in the state to bring care to more children.

Nancy Ramirez, clinical psychologist and assistant professor at Texas Tech Health Sciences Center El Paso, spoke with the Texas Standard about the lack of mental health in West Texas and how the program tries to reach those who have need care.

» For more information or to find a mental health care provider for yourself or someone else, visit MentalHealthTX.

This transcript has been slightly edited for clarity:

Texas Standard: How does the lack of mental health care in West Texas compare to other parts of the state — and for that matter, the country?

Nancy Ramírez: So right now, you know, in West Texas, well, in El Paso there’s about five psychiatrists per 100,000 people, whereas in most of Texas it’s eight psychiatrists. The national average is actually nine psychiatrists. So we have a lot of difficulty having enough providers to see the large number of young people and people who need mental health care.

Why is there such a shortage of vendors, especially in the western part of the state?

It’s a combination of factors. I think we’re just having trouble getting psychiatrists here to this area of ​​Texas and, you know, getting them to stay longer.

I guess part of it has to do with the economics of population demographics and how many patients you can serve and earn a living in a sense, right?

Yeah, absolutely.

What are your program’s plans to meet the needs, given the lack of doctors in the area?

It is therefore a telemedicine program. We are therefore able to provide virtual psychiatric and psychological services. And so through that, we’re able to reach a wider geographic area, where individuals would have to come into the clinic to get assessments, to continue to receive, you know, follow-up psychiatric care as well as psychotherapy , is not it. So in psychotherapy, they often need to come at least once or twice a month. So rather than parents and children having to go in person to a clinic that’s really out of their geographic area, you know, they can log on and access that care from home. And so really, that’s their access.

I think many parents, however, would have fundamental questions about the effectiveness of telehealth services for mental health needs.

Yeah, absolutely. You know, telemedicine is not new. And so these questions have been around for a long time. Patients are still able to receive in-depth assessments, however. And what we’ve realized during the pandemic is that, you know, it’s really effective compared to not receiving services. The pandemic really forced us to switch to this medium of care that existed, but which was really questioned in terms of effectiveness. And we’ve seen that, you know, patients are actually able to receive the services and receive good care and be more faithful to their care because it’s more accessible to them.

Are we talking about long-term care, or is it short-term triage, or what exactly?

With our program, individuals receive up to 12 sessions. And so it’s not quite long-term, but it gives us enough time for them to receive assessments, follow-up in terms of psychiatric care, and then they also receive psychotherapy. So, you know, they usually get sufficient treatment, and depending on what they need, that can, you know, include parents, which also becomes more accessible with remote treatment.

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